New York City now has more non-English speakers than ever, according to the Census Bureau: nearly two million. In response to this growing population, the city has assembled a host of programs to help it serve not just those who speak Spanish, Chinese and Russian, but also languages like Pashto, Punjabi, Uzbek and Urdu.
The New York Police Department, the largest in the country with almost 35,000 officers, has tried to stay at the forefront of the effort, and has billed its foreign language program as the world’s standard.
But having services doesn’t ensure they will be used, and some New Yorkers say that in the frantic, often frightening minutes just after a crime has occurred, their pleas for assistance in their native language have been ignored by officers. While help arrived swiftly after a call to 911, they say, officers didn’t summon a bilingual colleague, find an impartial bilingual bystander, or call the interpretation service the city uses for such situations. Domestic violence calls, already fraught with confusion and tension, have been particularly prone to language lapses, according to victim advocates. In interviews, several women said that without an interpreter, their attempts to report crimes were stifled.
A Russian-speaking woman said that after her husband accosted her in a drunken rage at his Coney Island home, she called the police. Officers ignored her requests to tell her story in her native tongue, she said. Instead, an officer scribbled the word “refused” and told her to copy it onto a report meant to contain her testimony. She followed his instructions. Embarrassed by the abuse, she agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity.
A Bengali-speaking woman said that after strangers punched and sexually assaulted her after a break-in at her home in Queens, officers asked her 10-year-old child to interpret. Unwilling to traumatize the child, she did not divulge the sexual attack. And a Spanish-speaking woman, Josefina Ramirez, said that after an argument with her landlord, she called 911 for protection. A pair of officers ignored her request for interpretation, she said, and rifled through her pockets, taking her keys, and then ejected her from the building.
Ms. Ramirez, 57, said she spent the night wandering the streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Instead of protecting me, they hurt me,” she said. “I understood nothing of what was going on.”
Victim advocates say these encounters and others like them show that for all its efforts and intentions, the Police Department is falling short of its goals, and of a 2008 mayoral order that requires it to provide non-English speakers with “meaningful access” to its services in the city’s most frequently spoken languages.
“It’s been a consistent problem,” said Dorchen A. Leidholdt, director of legal services at Sanctuary for Families, which serves more than 10,000 domestic violence victims a year, three-quarters of whom are immigrants. “It’s a critically urgent safety issue.”
Susan A. Herman, the department’s new deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, called language access “a very high priority,” saying that she has met with many community groups in recent months to discuss this and other issues. “We’re seeking continuous input from them about what they’re seeing on the ground.”
In January, a triple homicide thrust the limitations of the department’s language program into the spotlight.
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Police found Deisy Garcia, 21, stabbed to death in her Queens apartment. Her daughters lay dead in their beds in a nearby room, and her husband was soon charged with their murder.
The police later said that Ms. Garcia had filled out two reports chronicling her husband’s alleged abuse. But Ms. Garcia, a Guatemalan immigrant, had written them in Spanish, and no one had translated her words.
“I asked him what he was thinking about doing to me and I asked if he was thinking about killing me and he told me yes,” Ms. Garcia wrote in May 2013.
After Ms. Garcia’s death, the department sent out a staff memo, explaining that domestic incident reports “must be transcribed and translated as accurately as possible to ensure the appropriate police services are provided.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January, has inherited a Bloomberg-era lawsuit filed by seven Spanish-speaking women who say the Police Department violated their rights by denying them interpreters when they tried to report abuse.
Attorneys for the city have begun settlement discussions with Legal Services NYC, the group representing the women, said Amy Taylor, an attorney with the group. The two sides are set to meet this week. Mr. de Blasio has spent much of his career pushing to open city services to immigrants, and a spokeswoman said that his immigrant affairs office “is evaluating all city agencies’ language access programs.”
New York is not the only local government wrestling with this issue. In recent years, mayors and governors across the nation have issued executive orders requiring government agencies to serve non-English speakers. And police departments have had to think creatively about how to meet their legal obligations.
New York has worked to stay out in front. Under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the police force became considerably more diverse. At the patrol level, about a third of the department is Hispanic. The number of officers of Asian descent has more than doubled since 2003. Since 2012 all of the department’s 50,000-plus employees, officers and civilians, have had access to a 24-hour telephone interpretation service that allows them to connect with operators fluent in more than 170 languages. At least 15,000 staff members speak a language other than English, including 8,895 who speak Spanish; about 1,260 are certified interpreters.
In the academy, cadets are briefed on the department’s language access program and once on the job they receive 20-minute refreshers three times each year. Signs advertising free interpretation are posted in every police station house and service area.
The language access plan prohibits the use of an alleged aggressor as an interpreter, discourages the use of child interpreters and says that all officers should inform people of the availability of interpreters.
It is department policy, the plan reads, to provide people of limited English proficiency with “timely and meaningful access” to services “to the degree practicable.”
Immigrant advocates say the police have made strides in serving this population. They also say that staff members fail to call on these resources far too often.
An examination of a typical month of calls shows that the telephone interpretation service contracted by the city appears to be seldom used in the field.
Invoices from the service, Language Line, for October 2013 indicate that about 7,000 calls to 911 necessitated the use of the interpretation service. Not all calls require police follow-up. During the same period, invoices show, the program was used about 60 times by police cellphones and police supervisors. The city’s 911 line receives several hundred thousand calls each month.
When asked why the Language Line was not often used in the field, a spokeswoman for the department said that officers often opt to use other resources, “including the use of bilingual members of the public and bilingual members of the service,” said Deputy Chief Kim Y. Royster.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on national origin, and courts have generally ruled discrimination based on language is equal to that. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed the Police Department’s record on language access and concluded that the department was “not fully in compliance” with the Civil Rights Act.
In 2012, the Justice Department conducted a follow-up. Inspectors noted that the police had taken significant steps to respond to criticisms. In a July 2012 report, they concluded the department was in “substantial compliance” with requirements.
Three weeks later, Arlet Macareno, a Mexican immigrant, lay in a blurry-eyed jumble at the bottom of a staircase in her Staten Island home. She’d been pushed, she said, by an abusive husband.
“I need interprete please, I need interprete please,” she said she told officers who arrived at the scene. According to her account, police ignored her request, interviewed her husband’s English-speaking niece, and then arrested Ms. Macareno.
The event has emboldened her alleged abuser, who continues to stop by her home, said Ms. Macareno, 27. “I am terrified of the police,” she said. “My ex-husband comes to my door and says to me: ‘Call them. Call them. They’re not going to listen to you.’ ”
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