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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.

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