Buffalo police 'I speak' cards held up as model for police across New York - The Buffalo News
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Buffalo police 'I speak' cards held up as model for police across New York

Immigrants and refugees settling in Buffalo sometimes run into difficulties, and when difficulties occur, police frequently respond to help sort out the problems.

But how to communicate, when thousands of refugees speak dozens of different languages in Buffalo?

Buffalo police came up with a way. They carry a card listing 75 different languages that are spoken in the city.

“We hand the card to someone who doesn’t speak English and ask them to point to their language so that we can call Language Access and get somebody,” Capt. Steve Nichols said.

Police came up with the procedure after meeting with several different agencies that deal with the new arrivals. And many new arrivals also carry a card.

“Through these meetings, the community came up with an idea of having a card made up that has the person’s name, the language they speak, their address, next of kin and emergency contact on it that we could pass out to all of the different communities in the city and people could just carry the card,” Nichols said. “And if they’re ever stopped by the police or needed to get in touch with the police, they can just pull the card out and hand it to us and we could immediately pick up on the fact that they speak Karen, or Karenni or Burmese and we can call for an interpreter.”

“We hand the card to someone who doesn’t speak English and ask them to point to their language so that we can call Language Access and get somebody,” said Capt. Steve Nichols, left, pictured in March with Mayor Byron Brown. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The cards are made available through community agencies, community leaders and the Mayor’s Office of New Americans, Nichols said.

“What’s kind of cool with the card is it isn’t just for police services; they can use them for anything. They use it at a bank or when they walk into City Hall and they need services,” he said.

The program is working so well that representatives of the Buffalo Police Department were in Albany Tuesday to share its “best practices” with other agencies. The Buffalo officers were invited to participate in a daylong workshop by Refugee Services, a division of the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

The state got wind of the department’s innovations in working with the local refugee and immigrant communities during a visit in February and invited the Buffalo police to share with other police departments in the state.

“We did a workshop at Jericho Road, and they had asked us at that time. They liked our presentation, and they said, ‘there’s not a lot police departments throughout the state doing what you guys are doing. Would you guys be willing to take it on the road?’” Nichols said.

For the past three years, he said, the police department has worked closely with community stakeholders and agencies that provide services to the city’s refugee and immigrant communities, such as Jericho Road, Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Services and the International Institute. It was through these agencies and the people who avail themselves to their services that the Buffalo Police Department came up with its “I speak” card program.

“When we started working with the immigrant community, one of the biggest problems that they had was how to get in touch with 911 and how to get us out to their house. In an emergency, obviously, time is of the essence. So we sat down and did some workshops with them on how to call 911 (and) what to do when you call,” Nichols said.

“That card is something that came out of discussions. It’s something as simple as that, but it turned out to be a great resource for us,” he added. “We’ve distributed probably 10,000 of them.”

There were almost 1,000 calls made to 911 last year requesting the services of the police department’s Language Line.

Nichols said the aim is not only to facilitate basic communication, but develop better relationships with members of the city’s refugee and immigrant communities.

“We try to reach out them and build a relationship. We’ve been working closely with Buffalo Public Schools. We’ve done workshops with them on some Saturday mornings recently,” Nichols said. “To me, one of the biggest things is finding out what their relationship (with law enforcement) was like in their countries. We’re finding that in a lot of cases, the relationship wasn’t so great.”

More often than not, he said, the law enforcement experiences that refugees have had in their home countries have been with the military, as opposed to a local police force.

“But a uniform is a uniform. We need to teach that to our officers so they understand why people may sometimes be a little stand-offish and won’t talk to us right away even when they need help,” Nichols said.

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