The New York Police Department claims its foreign language program is a world standard, but non-English speakers in America’s most non-English-speaking city take a different view, according to a recent article by Julie Terkewitz in the New York Times.
New York’s 311 and 911 lines have telephone interpreters instantly available at all times. But out in the street, NYPD cops are accused of routinely ignoring interpretation requests by crime victims and others.
Especially at crime scenes, interpretation is often not even on the menu. “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.”
New York now has 1.8 million non-English speakers, more than ever before, according to the US Census. The cops can’t keep up. This despite a 2008 order by Mayor Bloomberg to provide non-English speakers with “meaningful access” to its services in the city’s most frequently spoken languages.
Part of the problem is that police on patrol are not using the available telephone interpreting service to conduct their business with those who don’t speak English. In October 2013 the language line for interpretation services was needed in 7,000 911 calls. During that time the interpreting service was used on cell phones about 60 times. This suggests that cops are avoiding the time and hassle of police work in a language other than English.
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.
NYPD employs about 15,000 staff members who speak a language other than English, about 9,000 in Spanish. About 1,200 have been certified as interpreters. Cops get a 20-minute briefing three times a year on how to use the telephone interpreting system, but they don’t use it.
That’s how it goes, and not just with cops. In fact it’s what really drives me nuts about the telephone interpreting business in general. We work so hard to provide a great service that can be useful to people in life-threatening situations. And it’s that last 30 inches, the length of a telephone cord, where our great service becomes completely useless because someone was reluctant to pick up the phone, because using a phone interpreter is outside of that person’s comfort zone. I get it. But it really drives me nuts.
Read the rest of the piece for the usual collection of soul-crushing stories, for example: “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 intérprete please, I need intérprete 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.’’”