Police Language Access — Immediate Steps To Take

It’s likely every officer in your organization knows what to do if a subject or witness responds to a question with, “No hablo ingles.” But what if they hear “Ez fam nakim”?*

According to the Department of Justice’s most recent Police-Public Contact Survey, police and citizens have over 61.5 million contacts each year, including about 50,000 traffic stops per day. In a nation where 25 million people have Limited English Proficiency (LEP), many of these contacts include a language barrier that can be frustrating, reduce efficiency, and even be dangerous.

LEP residents in Northwest Illinois number in the tens of thousands; in some counties at least 1 in 20 residents has difficulty with English. Adapting your procedures to better serve this population requires careful consideration and planning, but there are several actions you can take right away to improve your agency’s situation.

Update your picture of who is in your jurisdiction and what languages they speak
No matter how well you know the area, recent influxes of immigrants have probably changed the language patterns of your city or county. Data from the census and LEP.gov can be an invaluable resource, as can information from the Illinois or Wisconsin Department of Human Services and government and non-profit agencies in your area.

Whenever possible, use in-person interpreters from a local language company
The best interpretation occurs in person, where the interpreter can clearly perceive every nuance in speech, expression, and body language. Moreover, these interpreters can offer local area knowledge that interpreters via phone or video will lack. To a remote interpreter, locations a subject or witness mentions are just place names; to a local interpreter they are places he or she knows.

Establish telephone interpreting service, and ensure patrol personnel have access
In situations where time is tight (or during traffic stops), telephone interpreting services can be invaluable. Ensure that each patrol officer has the proper phone number to call (and your agency’s access code) so they can use this service with their cell phone on the speakerphone setting.

Another important step to take is ensuring patrol officers have access to I Speak cards, which can help quickly determine what language an LEP person speaks.

Coordinate with other agencies to share language resources
If an agency employs a bilingual officer, making them available to assist personnel from other local first responder agencies leads to more effective policing and better community relations. In the case of more common languages (such as Spanish) there may be multiple first responders and support personnel in the area who are fluent; in such a case, making dispatchers aware which personnel have these skills and when they are on duty can allow multiple agencies to have access to an bilingual staff on any given shift. Also, it is important to ensure all bilingual staff are screened for language proficiency and trained as to their role.

Translate common signage and documents
Many law enforcement agencies have translated frequently used documents such as witness statement forms into Spanish. Moving beyond this to other languages spoken in your area can save a great deal of time and trouble. The same is true with signage.

Ensure all officers understand that LEP can have different levels and implications
All law enforcement personnel should be made aware of these aspects of language and policing:

  • Even if a person for whom English is a second language seems fluent, officers should keep in mind that they may not understand details or language related to policing, courts, legal terms, etc. Always use a professional interpreter if there is any doubt about being understood.
  • Family members or other untrained civilians should not be used as interpreters, as they may inject unconscious bias into the conversation, or worse, suppress information officers need.
  • LEP individuals may expect different police procedures than Americans do. For example, in some countries drivers are expected to exit their vehicle and approach officers during traffic stops. LEP’s may also be refugees from nations where police were oppressors rather than servants, so care must be taken to communicate to them that officers are here to help.

*Kurdish for “I don’t understand.”