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Police use of translators rises as Buffalo continues to diversify

A Somalian family wanted to tie up and stone their 10-year-old boy when he became unruly.

A distraught Vietnamese clerk pointed her hand in the shape of a gun to show an officer what had happened to her in the store where she worked as a clerk.

An 8-year-old Nigerian girl slid down a bedsheet from a second-floor window, terrified of who had entered her home.

In each instance, Buffalo police encountered immigrants who did not speak English. So they reached out to a translation service to break the language barrier and then explain that a better alternative existed or solved a crime.

Modern crime fighting presents different situations, and one is the language barrier, especially as Buffalo has become home to thousands of immigrants, many from Asia and Africa.

At least 70 foreign languages are spoken in Buffalo these days, and police on patrol often need to react quickly to solve a problem or save a life.

That is why police brass, as well as city and county officials, are pushing to make even greater use of language translation services offered by Erie County Central Police Services at its 911 call center. Here is how they break the language barrier:

• Patrol officers now carry cards that list phrases in 94 different languages. When the non-English speaking person points to their native language, the officer then calls for the appropriate interpreter.

• Identification cards soon will be issued to new immigrants, and the cars will include the person’s name in English and their native language, along with contact information for an English-speaking member of the person’s ethnic community.

• Police and immigrants are working together to put in place a Police Department policy for language-access services.

• A task force has been established to address crimes against immigrants, particularly on the Lower West Side, where many Asian refugees live.

Meanwhile, Buffalo police, social workers and attorneys have been meeting regularly with the different immigrant communities to promote trust and encourage crime victims to call 911.

The outreach is starting to work, they say. More immigrants are using banks, rather than keeping cash in their homes, and when bad things happen, they are asking police for help.

Telephone interpreters

Police requests for interpreters have been steadily increasing, said John A. Glascott, commissioner of Central Police Services, the county agency that provides assistance, information and coordination with several police agencies.

Two years ago, interpreters helped 911 operators or police officers 641 times.

A year later, calls increased to 682.

As of mid-December this year, calls jumped to 811.

That is one of the reasons Central Police Services recently added a second language interpretation service after difficulties arose with the original translation service, according to Glascott.

The old language service had a recording: “What language are you looking for?”

That could cause problems. For instance, if the caller responded “Karen,” which is a language spoken by many immigrants and refugees from Burma, police would get a Korean interpreter.

“So we hired this new company ... and when you call, you actually get a human being,” Glascott said.

Both services cost the same, 75 cents per minute, which adds up to about $500 a month, Glascott said.

Spanish-speaking interpreters are the most requested by far. But dozens of requests are made each month for interpreters who speak Burmese, Arabic, Nepali, Somalian, Karen, Mandarin and Swahili.

Police radio dispatchers alert officers when they respond to a call if the person does not speak English. Often, though, when officers arrive at the scene, a relative or neighbor is there to assist in translating, according to Buffalo Community Police Lt. Steven Nichols.

“It is comforting to be able to speak to another person because the individual may have gone through a traumatic experience,” Nichols said.

Yet police point out that they need reliable information and the professional interpreters fill that need by serving as neutral parties in the exchange of information.

Personal experience

In a recent call for police assistance, Officers Michael A. Maritato and Joshua B. Domros encountered a family dispute that could have turned violent. The Somalian parents of a 10-year-old boy had removed him from the home because of his uncontrollable behavior. The parents did not speak English.

The officers called 911, and a Somalian translator was put on the line.

Here’s what happened:

Officers were able to determine that the family “agreed to tie the boy up and stone him, which is apparently customary with their home culture.” But the family decided to call the police instead. Officers through one of the two language services were able to reach out to other family members within the area and find a place for the child to stay temporarily, according to a police report.

In another incident, Officer Richard C. Lopez responded to a call about a theft from a grocery store, and when he originally entered, it did not seem that a serious crime had been committed.

But when the clerk, a Vietnamese woman, made hand gestures resembling a gun, Lopez said he realized this was more than someone stealing two cases of energy drinks. He called 911 on his cellphone and was connected to a Vietnamese language interpreter.

“I’d ask the interpreter questions in English, and then I’d give the woman the phone. I’d get the phone back and get answers to my questions,” Lopez said.

What he learned was this:

“The guy grabbed two cases of energy drinks and then went to the counter and made motions to the clerk that his money was out in the car. He took the cases and went out to the car and she followed him out and he pulled a small handgun on her. He then got in his car and drove off. I was able to obtain enough information and with the video in the store make an arrest.”

He added that the clerk was initially discouraged because she felt nothing would happen, but when Lopez called the interpreter, “she was ecstatic.”

In the case involving the Nigerian girl, Lopez said he and other officers made use of the translation service to find out why the child was trying to escape from her A Street home using a bedsheet from a second-floor window.

“The father had come to the house and she was petrified of him,” Lopez said. “Her mother had gone out to the store, and the girl was being watched by an older child. An order of protection had been issued against the father prohibiting him from having contact with the family. He was arrested and sentenced to county jail.”

Best of circumstances

When an immigrant can speak English, that makes it easier, given that crime scenes often are chaotic, police say.

That was the case earlier this month when five teenage gang members kicked down the door to the West Side home of a 75-year-old Bhutanese-Nepali refugee and her 27-year-old daughter. The women faced one gang member with a shotgun and another with a knife, according to police.

The two women fought the home invaders, the mother picking up a piece of the splintered wooden door frame, the daughter grabbing the blade of the knife.

“The knife was not sharp. I kept saying to the guy with the knife, ‘Take my phone, take my phone,’ ” said Phul Biswa, who speaks English. “But he said, ‘Give me money, give me money.’

“I said, ‘We have no money.’ He caught my throat with his hand and started pushing it.”

As the two women continued fighting with the intruders, other gang members managed to search the apartment before fleeing with a single piece of gold jewelry.

The mother, Tika Biswa, who does not speak English, ran to a side window and screamed for help in Nepali to her Bhutanese-Nepali neighbors.

“I called 911,” Phul Biswa said.

The police response was massive. Sixteen officers searched the neighborhood and a detective arrived and took a statement from the daughter. No arrests have been made, but Nichols said the case is still under investigation.

The daughter’s ability to speak English and the willingness of the women to cooperate have proven helpful, police said.

Positive developments

Lamin Tamang, leader of the Bhutanese-Nepali Community of Buffalo, said that police responses to crimes involving immigrants has improved in recent months.

“Communications are improving. There is a good coalition of leaders from the different immigrant communities and the police,” Tamang said.

He looks forward to the immigrant ID cards that the Office of New Americans at City Hall will distribute.

“The cards will say the immigrant’s name and what language they speak and ‘I need,’ say, ‘a Nepali interpreter.’ ”

But there is room for improvement in police-immigrant relations, said Steven Sanyu, president of Burmese Community Services on the West Side. Still, he, too, has noticed recent progress.

“I understand the police have a lot to do. We believe more education is needed on both sides, the community and the police. Police don’t always use the language lines,” Sanyu said. “But community members need to be able to say, ‘I cannot speak English.’ ”

The Police Department is working with immigrants on a language-access policy for those with limited English proficiency. It includes requirements for training of officers; listing in police reports the primary language of the victim or suspect; a protocol for securing certified translators for police interviews to ensure accuracy; and the appointment of a language-access liaison officer who would monitor the department’s compliance with the policy.

Sanyu also suggested that the policy require keeping track of the time of when police arrive at a scene and when the interpreter’s services begin in order to avoid delays and encourage use of interpreters.

Nichols said the Police Department wants to do more. It has taken the form of training immigrants to run neighborhood-watch groups and active recruitment of members of the immigrant communities to become police officers.

“The best thing we can do for any community is when someone calls 911, an officer who speaks your language shows up at your door,” Nichols said.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com