Police help community understand new language
By Maya Strausberg
February 22, 2008
Non-English-speaking San Franciscans got a lesson yesterday
on how to take advantage of a new policy meant to bridge the language
barrier between them and the city's police officers.
Civil rights leaders, attorneys and San Francisco Police Department
representatives held a mid-morning informational session on the
new policy at the Chinese for Affirmative Action office in Chinatown.
They explained that officers are now required to carry around
a language identification card so residents can point to their
primary language when communication becomes difficult.
The card explains in almost 100 languages that an interpreter
will be provided free of charge.
The order, unanimously approved by the police commission in October,
also defines who can act as an interpreter for those needing assistance.
Except in extreme emergency situations, family members, friends,
neighbors, volunteers and children may not interpret for police.
Juana Flores of the Mujeres Unidas y Activas said clarifying
who can interpret is an important step, especially when it comes
to domestic abuse.
Spanish-speaking wives who are being abused often have to rely
on the husbands who are abusing them to communicate with the police,
Flores said. The situation can get flipped, she said, when the
husband intentionally misinterprets, getting the women in trouble
Philip Hwang, an attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil
Rights, said children are too often used to interpret for their
parents, which can cause stress and trauma for the kids. Parents
are not always comfortable talking about domestic abuse or sexual
assault in front of their children, Hwang added.
The police department defined an order of preference for oral
interpretation during non emergencies. If possible, police will
provide direct communication by a qualified bilingual member as
established by the Department of Human Resources.
If that is not an option, a qualified civilian interpreter who
has been certified by the city or other designated qualifying
agency can be used.
When neither of those is an option, officers can use a telephone
interpreter through the Monterey-based company, Language Line
Services, which offers more than 170 languages.
When available, the policy requires all written forms, including
the Miranda admonition, to be provided in the primary language.
According to police Chief Heather Fong, the goal of the new protocol
is to provide the highest level of service regardless of background.
"All of us working together can provide the best level,
the highest level of service," she said.
Fong went on to introduce Lisa Torres as the department's new
Language Access Liaison officer, who will help monitor translation
and interpreter services and training.
Torres will prepare quarterly reports for Fong and biannual reports
for the police commission.
Office of Citizen Complaints policy analyst Samara Marion said
not many cities have protocol regarding police language access
but Summit County, Ohio and Philadelphia had policies that helped
inspire the new San Francisco general order.
San Francisco now has one of the strongest policies in the country,
according to Marion.
That's appropriate, said Asian Law Caucus attorney Angela Chan,
considering immigrants makes up 37 percent of the city's population,
"More immigrant families will feel more comfortable going
to the police to report crime," Chan said.
She also urged local organizations who support non-English speakers
to post signs explaining their rights to interpreter services
and that if police do not offer the service, they can report it
by calling (415) 241-7711.
The agencies and organizations that worked on the order with
the Police Department included the Asian Law Caucus, a legal and
civil rights organization that serves low-income Asian Pacific-American
communities; the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which offers
legal assistance to immigrants and people of color; Chinese for
Affirmative Action, which aims to protect the political and civil
rights of Chinese-Americans; Mujeres Unidas y Activas, an organization
that works for the social justice of Latina immigrant women; the
Office of Citizen Complaints, a city department that investigates
complaints against the Police Department; and the American Civil
Liberties Union of Northern California, which works to preserve
the protections of the Bill of Rights.