Under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act, any group funded by the federal government is required to provide what’s called “meaningful access” to services for citizens of a different national origin. Courts have since ruled language is an element of national origin and thus must be considered.
The Bloomington Police Department receives federal grant money, meaning it’s subject to Title 6 and must attempt to find translators who can communicate with those whom officers question during the course of an investigation. Currently, the department has only two officers who speak Spanish — just one of many languages spoken in a community with an internationally-recognized university. BPD Captain Joe Qualters said taking an officer off duty for interpretation or language training would cost the department money and create a gap in patrolling.
But Isabel Framer, a legal interpreter and a pioneer in writing policy which promotes language access for law enforcement, said proper interpretation can save money, including the cost of lengthy interrogations.
“The cost associated with a reversal of a case or wasting thousands of dollars on bad investigations — the cost is much larger,” she said.
Framer worked with city leaders in Summit-Lorraine, Ohio to develop a national model for helping those with limited English proficiency access interpreters and other services in their native tongue, specifically Spanish.
The Summit-Lorraine project emphasizes, above all else, avoiding the use of friends, family and children as translators — a practice Captain Qualters said is common in Bloomington. Secondly, the Ohio city has an exhaustive booklet of procedures for handling emergency law enforcement scenarios. This booklet includes phrases in a comprehensive list of languages spoken in the US. It also has translated documents, such as the Miranda Rights.
The Summit-Lorraine police department has trained interpreters, rather than just translators, on call when in-house interpreters are unavailable. The city also formed an advisory board of experts including interpreters, linguists and representatives of the immigrant community. The booklet also suggests attorneys and judges be trained to deal with questionable interpretations in court.
The risk of criminals going free or the innocent being convicted due to questionable interpretation credibility is high as well. Christina Courtright is a court interpreter in Monroe County and said though she must remain silent as an interpreter for a judge, she often sees faulty interpretation go unchallenged by defense attorneys, even in cases where a slight nuance can be incriminating.
“A misunderstanding is a terrible thing when people are in danger or lives are at stake,” Courtright said.
While the BPD maintains a list of available translators from the community and Indiana University who have volunteered to work with the police, these people are not necessarily trained interpreters. Courtright said there is also a national service called the Language Line, which connects callers with interpreters of more than 150 languages. Captain Qualters said the BPD uses such services in more extreme situations, though use of friends and family is still more common.
Courtright said the police department and the community still need to work together to address language barrier issues.
“The whole point is to build a community partnership to improve policing. Policing isn’t just, of course, just catching the bad guys. Policing is also improving people’s situation, helping people when they need help,” Courtright said. “So I think overall a broader partnership that would incorporate the police in general would probably first of all raise cultural awareness raise awareness of language issues, raise awareness of the pitfalls that could occur when language problems get in the way. The more people you can involve in talking about the issue, then everybody figures out what their side can do to maybe improve things. And also, everybody becomes aware of resources they can draw on that might be here on their own doorsteps,” she said.
The BPD is currently waiting to hear if it’s been awarded a federal grant which would enable the hiring as many as eight new police officers. Qualters said hiring bilingual officers is a consideration, but it’s not a priority for the department.