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Buffalo acts to improve communication with immigrants

Buffalo police are intensifying efforts to improve communication with the city’s growing immigrant community, expanding the use of language services and discouraging officers from relying on children or neighbors to translate except in extreme cases.

Mayor Byron W. Brown on Monday said the city has adopted a “Language Access Plan,” to be fully implemented in mid-March, that includes using language cards to help officers identify the language spoken by a non-English-speaking resident, and to then obtain appropriate translator services, such as a bilingual member of the Police Department, a civilian interpreter or, in many cases, telephone interpreter services.

The formalized Language Access Plan grew out of a meeting between immigrants and city officials last year, when immigrants expressed frustration with their inability to communicate with police. Leaders of the Burmese, Karen and Bhutanese-Nepali communities got together and submitted a series of proposals to City Hall.

That document, Brown said, became the basis for the city’s new policy.

Lamin Tamang, a leader in the Bhutanese-Nepali community Monday praised the city’s efforts. “The beauty of this city is its rich diversity,” he said.

Last year, Brown said, the telephone language-line service was used 900 times. It already has been used more than 150 times the first two months of this year, and its use is expected to dramatically increase as the Language Access Plan becomes formalized, he said.

Once an officer determines the language a resident speaks, he or she can contact the line, and an interpreter will be available on speaker phone to translate, officials said.

Jessica M. Lazarin, director of the Office of New Americans, said Buffalo currently has a contract with a telephone language line that the 311 non-emergency call system uses, and Erie County has a contract that Buffalo uses for 911 emergency calls. There are about 77 different languages spoken in Buffalo, and the telephone languages line offers interpretation in about 200 different languages, she said.

The new policy states police should refrain from using family members, neighbors, friends or children to interpret at a crime scene unless immediate action is needed, and no alternative is available.