skip to content

N-LAAN

NYT: U.S. Reviews New York Police Dealings With People Who Don’t Speak English (Amy Taylor Quoted)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Justice Department has begun reviewing how the New York Police Department interacts with New Yorkers who do not speak English, focusing on whether language barriers play a role in matters like car stops, emergency calls, arrests, crime prevention and the filing of complaints.

In a letter this week outlining its effort, the federal government emphasized that its review was a “routine audit,” to determine if the city’s central police agency was complying with federal civil rights laws.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the audit had not been prompted by a complaint, but rather was part of a standard review process of agencies that serve large numbers of people with little or no English proficiency.

The department has conducted about 50 such reviews since 2002, when it issued guidelines requiring all recipients of Justice Department grants to provide services to non-English speakers, said the spokeswoman, Sarah Matz.

The police departments of Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia are among those that have been audited, but this will be the first review in New York, she said.

The letter, dated April 7, said that the Office for Civil Rights, which is part of the department’s Office of Justice Programs, wanted to “learn more about whether language barriers have affected the interaction” of persons with limited English proficiency with “N.Y.P.D. officers in the context of traffic stops, emergency and nonemergency telephone calls, interrogations, investigations, arrests, booking and intake, crime prevention activities, community outreach, interactions in precinct lobbies and filing complaints.”

As part of the review, the government is inviting immigrant organizations to a private forum on April 19, in Brooklyn, as it begins to collect information.

“We want to know what the N.Y.P.D. is doing well, and what it could do better,” the government’s letter said.

It said that “to encourage conversation,” neither the department nor the news media were invited to the forum.

The reviews typically last about six months and usually result in recommendations for improvements. None so far have led to a reduction in federal grants, though that is a potential penalty, Ms. Matz said.

Some advocates, including lawyers and others, have questioned the adequacy of the department’s dealings with people who do not speak English, particularly regarding victims of domestic violence.

For its part, the Police Department has pointed to specific steps it has taken in addressing the needs of people speaking a variety of foreign languages in a multicultural city.

On Friday, the department’s chief spokesman, Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, said the department was increasingly seeking creative ways to make inroads with foreign speakers, in areas including police officer recruitment and community affairs, as well as in patrol functions. He said the department’s Office of Management Analysis and Planning had been contacted by federal officials about a month ago and was providing information.

“I think they’ll find that we have the largest number of foreign-language speakers of any police department in the country, and perhaps the world, but certainly in the diversity of languages and the pure number of foreign-language speakers,” Mr. Browne said. “And I think they will also find that this capacity extends over a broad range of police activities, everything from 911 calls to the newly emerging cricket fields of New York City.”

Detailing the department’s programs, Mr. Browne said linguists were at the ready when 911 operators heard a caller speaking an unfamiliar language.

And on the street, he said, officers can have crime victims talk to people in their native language on a “multilingual line.” He said that requests for officers with special language skills rang out routinely in radio transmissions.

The department recruits in foreign-language newspapers. And candidates who speak languages in demand by the department, like Chechen, are given preference on civil service hiring lists.

In addition, after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed Executive Order 120 in July 2008, the department created a language access plan to guarantee immigrants a meaningful ability to take advantage of police services.

But some advocates are preparing to present to the government a range of experiences that they say portray a large, sprawling police force that at times seems impenetrable to those who, for instance, speak only Spanish.

Lawyers and advocates representing non-English speaking victims of domestic violence, for example, tell of responding officers who have no access to an interpreter relying on a neighbor to translate, or sometimes speaking only to the perpetrator, who may be the only English speaker in the house. Or sometimes, advocates say, officers simply write “uncooperative” or “refused” in the section that would include the victim’s statement.

“These are people who are being characterized as uncooperative witnesses, which can have a devastating effect on these cases,” said Amy Taylor, language access project coordinator for Legal Services NYC.

Mr. Browne said that sometimes people were uncooperative and that, “it has nothing to do with foreign languages.”

In the end, Mr. Browne said: “We probably do this better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean it is universal. We don’t do everything perfectly all the time.”

Topics:
Login
Pro Bono and legal aid attorney resources - Pro Bono Net