Diversity dilemma: police face a growing language barrier

Diversity dilemma: police face a growing language barrier

By Fariba Nawa
July 31, 1999
Argus/ANG Newspapers

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of four articles investigating diversity in local police departments.

TERROR STRUCK a 50-year-old Korean man when narcotics officers kicked in the door of his Newark home, tackled him, put a gun to his head and handcuffed him.

The officers, dressed in street clothes, said they had no choice when Bok Hwan Kim tried to flee from what they believed was a drug house. Kim later said he thought they were robbers.

The problem?

Kim didn’t speak English and didn’t know they were police officers. And the officers didn’t speak Korean, so he couldn’t tell them they had the wrong house.

Officers soon discovered their mistake, but not before the language barrier led to a nearly tragic misunderstanding.

Newark Police Chief Ken Jones apologized to the Kim family a week after the raid. Kim filed a $1 million lawsuit against the city and police claiming his civil rights were violated. The suit was settled out of court.

That was in spring 1988, as the Southeast Asian, Indian and Afghan populations in Fremont, Union City and Newark were swelling, bringing with it communication problems for police departments unprepared to handle the influx of immigrants speaking such a diversity of lan guages.

Eleven years later, the number of languages and dialects spoken in Fremont, Newark and Union City has doubled to about 104, said local school officials.

The still-growing immigrant population has created obstacles for police in trying to cope with communities that have vastly different cultures and value systems, which often include an ingrained distrust of police.

Language barriers often make basic fact gathering difficult.

While the cities don’t compile statistics on immigration, Fremont police expect that by the year 2000 about half of the city’s 203,000 residents will be a mix of ethnicities and races other than white — including Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and African-American.

Police are trying to hire bilingual and minority workers, but say it is a major challenge. Minority police employees say cultural-based attitudes to ward police may be the reason.

The majority of police employees speak only English and many immigrants do not speak English well.

Officers responding to an emergency, perhaps a domestic dispute, get frustrated when they have to turn to an English-speaking child in the family to defuse an explosive situation.

It can take up to two hours to get an interpreter to the scene, Fremont Sgt. Sandra Cortez said.

Another Fremont police sergeant voiced his fears: “What if people … are talking to each other about killing me and I have no clue. I’m just standing around waiting for a translator.”

A language barrier has not resulted in any killings in the area but police say the language barrier slows them down.

Non-English speakers who are confronted by police can be frustrated, too.

Last summer, in a felony traffic stop three Newark officers pointed their guns at Simeen Muntazir, 63, an Afghan native who speaks only Farsi. A petrified Muntazir, who has serious heart problems, ended up in the hospital, though she had done nothing wrong.

She and her daughter-in-law, Sima, were going home after a funeral service when the officers mistook their blue Toyota van for a criminal’s vehicle. Police were looking for someone who had brandished a weapon earlier that night.

Firearms drawn, the officers pulled the van over. The younger woman, who speaks some English, tried to explain to her mother-in-law what was happening. But Muntazir started to hy perventilate and had to be taken to the hospital.

A year later, Muntazir recalled the incident, still uncomfortable with the memory: “I didn’t know what was going on. I panicked. I thought they were taking us to jail or going to shoot us. And I couldn’t tell them we hadn’t done any thing wrong. I don’t speak their language.”

No data is kept for how many calls to police require interpreters but dispatchers heard on the police scanner will say “language barrier” several times a day, and then contact an interpreter.

There are a few resources to deal with the barrier:

-Phone companies, which provide interpreters for many dialects and languages.

-A few bilingual police employees, who can serve as translators.

-Fellow officers who know a few phrases in more common languages such as Spanish.

-And a bank of bilingual volunteers available to Fremont officers.

These options work in situations that don’t require immediate action. But police have almost no resources in urgent situations.

Departments are trying to address the issue. Recruiting multilingual minorities has become a top goal.

But because of a statewide shortage of applicants, police departments struggle just to hire qualified officers — without even considering their ability to speak foreign languages, recruiters say.

Lt. Jan Gove, who heads the Fremont department’s diversity program, said they are doing their best to meet the needs of the different communities. Out of 300 Fremont police employees, 14 percent are bilingual. They speak about 12 languages, ranging from Japanese to the East Indian Punjabi dialect and American Sign Language, Gove said.

Another problem is that there may be no financial incentive for police employees to become bilingual.

The bilingual employees are not paid for translating in Fremont and Newark, but Fremont Officer Eric Frederic, a certified Spanish interpreter, wants to change that. He and another bilingual detective have asked the city to pay for interpretation services.

Union City recently agreed to pay its bilingual employees.

Frederic, who learned the language as a missionary in the Dominican Republic, said his language skills have helped him build a rapport with the Hispanic community. He used his skills in a model program to help reduce crime in Centerville. Other officers also request his services in follow-up investigations, and he prepares press releases in Spanish for the media.

Police see the language barrier as a challenge, but not an insurmountable situation.

Most immigrants speak some English and police are able to get the information they need most of the time, Fremont’s Gove said.

“We’re pretty effective at what we’re doing. But there’s always room to improve,” she said.

In Newark, where police have essentially the same resources as Fremont, Detective Rich Paloma said he feels hampered by the language barrier.

As an investigator, the subtleties of expressions and tones are important to catch. The underlying meanings may be lost during the translation, he said.

“With a translator, you don’t have as much control over the interview,” Paloma said.

The detective said he thinks if his department offered classes in more languages, employees would take them.

But Gove said it’s nearly impossible to offer classes in so many different languages. The East Indian and East Asian dialects are the biggest struggle because there are so many of them, she said.

Community policing should play a key role in addressing the problem, said Matthew Petrocelli, a California State University, Hayward, criminal justice professor. He has studied police diversity issues.

True community policing would involve teaching officers simple phrases in the primary languages of their neighborhood, Petrocelli said.

“It would behoove departments to teach their officers some sort of basics,” he said. “The military has its own language institute. Why can’t the police?”

Newark police officers have seen the benefit of language lessons.

The department may offer Spanish classes through Ohlone College be cause of the high demand for Spanish interpreters, Capt. Cliff Nannini said.

In Union City, where a large Filipino population has settled, Officer Mark Quindoy said using his native Tagalog makes it easier to relate, even though many Filipinos speak English.

“Some people have a natural bond if you speak their language,” Quindoy said.

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