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Departments : Officer Survival

Policing in a Multilingual Community

A look at how one department teams up with its multicultural community to assist officers in the field.

October 01, 1998  |  by Chief Jerry Sanders and Sgt. M. Caplan

A look at how one department teams up with its multicultural community to assist officers in the field.

The value of community policing and problem solving has been clearly established by the many po­lice departments across the country. The San Diego Police Department, a recog­nized leader in this area, has discovered that to become a true community-based policing agency, all communities in a city need to be reached.

The county of San Diego has one of the highest levels of immigration in the nation. Out of approximately 2.6 million inhabitants, the 1990 census found 556,685 people who speak a language other than English and 142,149 (25.3 percent) who consider themselves "lin­guistically isolated."

This pales when the level of illegal immigration is taken into consideration. Established sources show that there are more than 24 languages spoken in the county by considerable numbers of the population. Some authorities cite as many as 56 languages spoken in the county." This poses unique difficulties in providing neighborhood-based services.

Laying the Groundwork

The challenge in this type of demographic environment is to reach those people who are the most linguistically isolated, helping them to become active members of the police-community team. To do this, the San Diego Police Department has developed a substantial corps of multilingual volunteers. The San Diego Police Department Volunteer Po­lice Interpreters Program (VPIP) links these isolated communities with the department in a spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit. The volunteers selected are either native speakers or have spent considerable time in the country where the desired language is spoken.

VPIP was developed as a certification project for the State of California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) through the Master Instructor Development Program (MIDP). The research for the program showed a variety of approaches dealing with the lan­guage isolation of various communities. Some agencies use a pay service but these are difficult to reach for the field officer. They are also expensive, costing as much as $3 per minute. Other agencies have recruited volunteers who are multilingual, but provide minimal training. Apparently there is little in the way of a formalized, coordinated effort in this direction.

A development team was assembled containing people with a variety of law enforcement skills and requirements. Representatives from patrol, commu­nications, investigations, SWAT, critical incident negotiations, etc. were all involved. Each contributed ideas from their own areas of expertise. The development process followed the Kemp Instructional Systems Design model. This resulted in a thorough training pro­gram that addressed all issues related to the functions of a police interpreter.

Proper Use of Interpreters  

The most important concept that emerged was that the interpreter must maintain the role of interpreter to be the most effective. The most common mis­take is to have the interpreter assume the duties of the investigating officer.  

The experience of most officers is that when an interpreter is available, it is almost always a fellow officer who is trained to conduct preliminary investi­gations. A common alternative to a bilingual police officer is to use a neigh­bor, family member or friend who speaks the language. Even in these cases, most officers will ask the "inter­preter" to "find out what happened" without any attempt to control the fact finding process, to verify the language ability of the interpreter or to ensure the interpreter is not a party to the investi­gation. The assumption seems to be that anyone willing to help must be quali­fied. Such an assumption can seriously jeopardize an investigation.

In one case, the investigation of a family disturbance was affected when the of­ficers requested the son of a Somali speaking woman to translate. The officers "found out" that the problem was now "resolved and their assistance was no longer required." Several days later word filtered through to the depart­ment that the problem was the son who had been used as an interpreter, and ob­viously had an interest in misdirecting the police.

To properly use an interpreter, the officer initiating the request must retain the duties of primary investigator. The interpreter merely translates.

Volunteer Training

Training programs focus on exposing the volunteers to a variety of role-play situations that simulate a variety of police functions. These include a low stress preliminary interview, a moderate-stress interview of a distraught victim, such as a victim of a sexual assault, and a high-stress situation, such as a suicidal person or hostage taker.

In addition to role-play situations, the volunteers receive training in writing a very basic fill-in report that details the circumstances of the translation process. The requesting officer maintains the responsibility of writing the translated statements, with the volunteer having an opportunity to check them for accuracy. This satisfies the district attorney's request that the volun­teers provide written documentation of their involvement. In a well-organized, formal program this process gives credibility and reliability to the service.

An additional area of concern was having the volunteers participate in sensitive interviews such as child molesta­tion, sex crimes, undercover investigations, etc. This was resolved by ensuring all volunteers undergo the same exten­sive background investigation required of all non-sworn police personnel. With the San Diego Police Department fully committed to involving the community in its policing efforts, the system was al­ready in place for performing these investigations. In addition, the volunteers are given a briefing that includes signing a confidentiality agreement which pro­tects all the parties.

Growing Resource

Volunteer recruitment is accomplished by publicizing the program in a city vol­unteer opportunities pamphlet. Addition­al recruiting is done by publication of "human interest" stories in the local media and by contacting organizations that serve international communities.

Currently, the VPIP has more than 60 active volunteers. They represent a pool of 22 languages from Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. More languages are being added and recruiting has now become more specialized, targeting specific language groups not currently available.

Because of the completely voluntary program format, any member of the pro­gram is able to decline responding to a call when they have other obligations. This potential problem is addressed by having several volunteers in each lan­guage. Any officer making a request for an interpreter will typically have four or five volunteer choices.

No minimum number of hours or stand-by status is required of the volun­teers. The design team found that placing a volunteer on "stand-by" would not be productive as there was no way to predict when a specific language would be needed. The volunteers are advised that if they initially turn down a request for service, they may be called and prompted to assist if no other volunteer is available. Most agree that under emergency circumstances they will do whatever is necessary to respond.

Breaking Old Habits

The largest difficulty with the pro­gram is that accessing the volunteers has not yet become routine for officers, ac­customed to "making due" with a neighbor or family member. In spite of this, VPIP members have assisted in a variety of calls ranging from tourist deaths and homicides, to child molestation and robberies. One case involved the investiga­tion of a suspicious injury when a Japanese woman fell from a fifth story hotel room to a fourth floor landing. Assisted by a volunteer interpreter, the officers determined the fall was accidental. This prevented the arrest of the woman's mother, who was detained as a possible suspect and did not speak English.

These types of investigations, as well as others, can all be enhanced by making full use of the resources available from our multicultural community. This program is an important part of the San Diego Police Department's commitment to community policing and creative problem solving.

Chief of Police Jerry Sanders is a 25-year veteran of the San Diego Police Development. Under his leadership, the SDPD has developed a national reputation for community-based problem solving.

Sgt. Nathalio M. Caplan is a 22-year police veteran, currently assigned to the SDPD's Regional Public Safety Train­ing Institute as the human relations core instructor.

Tags: Bilingual Officers


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