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Language Barrier Causing Problems for Houston Police

Language Barrier Causing Problems for Houston Police

Houston Chronicle via YellowBrix

January 11, 2010

Police officers arriving at a murder scene at a north side apartment complex could not speak Spanish to the residents, so a cameraman from a local TV station translated until bilingual officers arrived hours later.

It is a situation that plays out across Houston several times a week as officers who speak only English rely on wrecker drivers, bystanders or victims’ children to act as translators if bilingual officers are not available.

Despite a Houston Police Department program that pays $1.9 million annually in extra pay to 1,046 bilingual-certified officers — nearly 20 percent of the 5,300-officer force — there are frequent situations when officers cannot speak with the residents they serve, officers say. Of those, 904 officers are certified as fluent in Spanish. Other certifications include officers who can speak Vietnamese, two dialects of Chinese and Korean.

Texas Policing

The issue of language fluency is crucial in Houston, an international city that long has been a magnet for immigrants from around the world. For example, the Houston Independent School District has identified about 100 languages spoken in students’ homes, a district spokesman said.

Critics say an insufficient number of bilingual officers can cause trauma to crime victims, burdens the bilingual officers with greater case loads, and endangers officers who cannot immediately communicate with criminal suspects.

The lack of bilingual officers often forces victims to recount the intimate details of a sexual attack to a neighbor acting as a translator for an officer, said one veteran HPD investigator, adding he encountered the situation several times a month.

“On a homicide case when you have to go to an outsider — not an officer, not a detective, not an investigator — to use them to translate or interpret, that’s bad enough,” said the officer, who asked not to be identified because he had not been authorized to speak to the news media. “But if you could imagine a family violence case, a sexual assault case, or where a juvenile has been assaulted, and having to use a neighbor, or a family member, or someone off the street to tell about something that real intimate, personal, private — it’s horrible. It’s a second victimization.”

The officer said because of the high number of Hispanic victims, the four bilingual officers in his 24-investigator juvenile sex crimes unit had caseloads that were up to four times as high as officers who spoke only English.

Rosalinda Ybanez, a Houston police officer who is president of the Organization of Spanish Speaking Officers, said HPD does not have enough Spanish-speaking officers in a city where the population is estimated to be 42 percent Hispanic.

“The reason is because it seems that the chief has not ever actually paid attention to the problem of servicing the Hispanic community, and especially the Hispanic community that speaks Spanish only,” Ybanez said.

Hurtt defended numbers

Former Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, in an interview shortly before he retired Dec. 31, said HPD has enough bilingual officers to meet the city’s needs. When victims cannot communicate with officers, they can call a telephone translation service, he said, adding that Hispanic officers are assigned to every division of the department.

  • Car6_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Problem seems to be their lack of learning the English language. Too many opportunities for them to learn English, why should it be the officers fault?

  • Img_0379_max50


    over 4 years ago


    The last time I checked, Houston is in hte United Sates and as a rule, we speak English here. As far as the comments form "skipdo" go, he illuminated his personal position when he said, "I've been telling my students for years." Sounds like another liberal teacher to me. And just for additional information, I'm anglo and speak Spanish. It does help in the area I work. I usually say I don't and let them speak to each other about the "stupid juedo". It always comes as a shock to them when they find out.

  • Dsc03481_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Forgot to mention this before. Officers in Miami would love to have extra pay for speaking a foreign language. Most do!

  • Dsc03481_max50


    over 4 years ago


    The same problem existed in Miami-Dade county 20-30 years a go. While I agree that the citizens need to learn english, that won't solve the problem. I don't see how with nearly 20% percent of the force speaking spanish they are still having these types of problems. HPD might want to call city of Miami, or Metro-Dade PD and ask for advice!

  • 101_2771_max50


    over 4 years ago


    "you don’t feel confident because you’re not going to be understood.” ... how about learn English? There are plenty of programs around the Houston area offering classes.

  • 0524001248_0001_0001_max50


    over 4 years ago


    I bet they understand when you say "your under arrest". Seems to me that is a universal launguage.

  • Aw_1_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Right "skipdo", those mono-lingual people, eh? Of course you and me are better than that, me being fluent in 3 languages and you, well, don't know, but you sound like you think you're pretty high up there. Anyway, I think my mind's expanded enough, any more and I might actually get corrupted by some weird interpretation of the concepts of service (to the AMERICAN people) and professionalism. Also, just for clarification: what's the problem again with waving the American flag?

  • Untitledma28839986-0002_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Doesn't sound like a police problem.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    It's really easy for us to sit back and make comments about living in a country and not "having the decency to learn" the language while dressed in kakies and waving the American Flag. Especially for those people who are mono-lingual and don't want to expand their minds. We are paid to SERVE the community we live in, not the other way around. If you SERVE in a community where other cultures and languages are present and spoken it's only professional to learn so you may SERVE them better. Let's not forget that they are working and paying taxes too. Learning another language also helps you deal with other cultures and understand their issues. We are a global community (it aint Mayberry RFD anymore Opie). My experience is that if you can speak the language it opens up more doors for you professionally when interacting with the community you SERVE. They learn to trust you more and are more willing to work with you. As far as being in Mexico..well we don't live in Mexico! People aren't beating down the doors of Mexico to move there. However, I grew up on the Mexican border and I guarantee you English is spoken. I have talked with Pharmacies, Police and store employees, if there is an English speaking population, they speak English's only good business. I've been telling my students for years now to dust off their Spanish books and break out Rosetta Stone, it's the wave of the future. Spasiva, Gracias, thank you.

  • Aw_1_max50


    over 4 years ago


    If you live in a country and don't have the decency to learn at least the very basics of the dominant language there, I really don't think it should be made the police's problem to find a way to help you. Have any idea what'll happen in, say, Mexico, if the police show up in a heated and possibly violent situation and you have no way of communicating with them?

  • Mourning_badge_max50


    over 4 years ago


    I learned to understand, read, write and speak Spanish because I wanted to learn it for my own convenience. It is needed when working in the Houston area daily and the pay incentive isn't bad either.

    I married a beautiful Colombian woman a few years ago and boy did that help since she speaks English. We use both languages regularly at home and when out for the evening. Our children speak Spanish in the house and English when out (to stay fluent) unless their friends do not understand Spanish, then they speak English inside the house as well.

    To qualify for the incentive here, you must be able to read, write and converse in a fluent manner. Most Officers understand a little Spanish and can speak a few short sentences anyway. It would be very easy to schedule classes to teach all those who want to extend their proficiency in the language. It is precise and it is easy to learn unlike English. If you learn castilian Spanish, you can get by just about anywhere.

  • Meandhim_max50


    over 4 years ago


    If you want more people to speak Spanish, pay them more money. It's really pretty simple. If my department offered an increase for speaking Spanish, then I would take the time to learn. Since they don't, I will continue working with my cue cards and limited Spanish speaking ability.

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