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Bloomington Police Struggle With Language Barrier


This story was written and voiced by Emily Loftis

Bloomington boasts more than 8,500 who claim another language as their mother tongue.  Of those, 2,300 are Hispanic.  Just two Bloomington police officers are fluent in Spanish, and there are no interpreters on the BPD payroll.

Police leaders say the city’s legal system is struggling to bridge language and cultural barriers…

The Bloomington Police Department has two bilingual officers, but no bilingual dispatchers to answer emergency calls, though they often use phone interpreters during emergency situations.

Christina Courtright – a federal court interpreter in Southern Indiana — said there is a difference between being bilingual and being a certified interpreter.

But in matters of the law, the difference is more than just academic.  Courtright says one skill doesn’t automatically translate to the other.

“The fact that you can speak two languages doesn’t mean that you can interpret.  Just like having two hands doesn’t mean you can play the piano,” said Courtright.

Certified interpreters have at least two years of training and must be skilled in interpreting a language’s lexicon, grammar structure and cultural elements.

BPD Captain Joe Qualters said there is no official procedure for responding to a call involving a language barrier.  He said when the two bilingual officers are either unavailable or off-duty, officers typically use nearby relatives or acquaintances to interpret.

“Sometimes if there are family members that might be bilingual, we can try to utilize them to assist us,” said Qualters.  “And many times those people step up anyway to be the source of information for us,” he said.

Isabel Framer is an interpreter and has been a pioneer in writing policy on how law enforcement handles language access.  She said there is actually a danger in using those nearby during a civil dispute or at the scene of a crime.

“Friends and family members are not trained as interpreters.  You really don’t know what level language proficiency they have,” said Framer.  “However, what’s most important is that family and friends are not neutral parties.”

Captain Qualters said the BPD avoids using children for interpretation, as it puts the child in a compromising situation.  Officers also search for physical evidence to confirm the interpretation of the friend or family member.

Attorney Christie Popp works in Bloomington and Indianapolis on civil cases involving immigrants.  She said cultural differences can also be confusing.

A larger problem, Popp said, is a strong mistrust of police in other countries.

“If you come from a country where there’s a dictatorship or it’s a democracy in name only, where the police are corrupt and they take bribes– there’s going to be a level of distrust with the police, whether the police are doing anything or not,” she said.

Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlines some rules for all government services.  The law says all federally funded agencies must provide meaningful access for residents of different national origin.  Various Supreme Court cases have since determined that language is a part of national origin, and thus the act also applies to language access.

But Captain Qualters said the BPD is not a federally funded agency.   But under the law, if an agency receives any sort of grant or other monetary support for even one project, that agency is vulnerable to complaints regarding Title 6.

Qualters said it’s also a question of resources.  Language training means additional curriculum costs, the continued pay of an off-duty officer and a void in the police force during classroom time.

“It may not be to a department’s best interest to send somebody for that length of time.  You’re taking available resources from the daily needs of the street calls,” said Qualters.

So how to police Bloomington – a town full of international residents?  A police force that serves a population of nearly eighty-thousand may not be big enough to employ interpreters of several languages.  In the conclusion of this two-part series Wednesday, court interpreters Christina Courtright and Isabel Framer discuss possible steps to providing meaningful access for all citizens.

This story was written and voiced by Emily Loftis

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