Buffalo Police Department adopts language access plan

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Mayor Byron W. Brown held a press conference last week, February 29, to announce that the Buffalo Police Department has adopted a Language Access Plan. The plan is a culmination of efforts made by ethnic community leaders following a stream of home invasions in Fall 2014. This formal written policy is meant to strengthen interactions between police and non-English speakers.   

“We want immigrants and refugees to know that Buffalo is a welcoming place to go,” Brown said.   

The BPD’s Language Access Plan will officially launch on March 15. It will set the standard for  interpretation services available to non-English proficient community members.  Language Access measures will include a “Language Line” telephone service, and a Language Access Card on which non-English speakers can point out their language to police officers.

Last week on March 1, the Common Council held open session to discuss a variety of police matters. The Police Oversight Committee (an extension of the Council) and members of the Department were in attendance. On the agenda was the Language Access Plan. Steven Sanyu, President of Burmese Community Services, addressed council members including Majority Leader and Niagara District Council Member David Rivera. Sanyu thanked Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda for finalizing the plan, and expressed that ongoing police training will be necessary.

“All [officers] will be trained on the new policy,” Derenda responded by saying.

Sanyu stated that he looks forward to communicating with government officials and the BPD in months to come.

Lieutenant Steven Nichols, head of Community Relations and Special Events, has served 20 years with the BPD. He says that about three years ago, the Mayor’s Office declared the language barrier “needed to be dealt with.” Nichols currently spends much of his time at community engagements in immigrant-dense neighborhoods. This includes a monthly workshop at the Boys & Girls Center on Vermont St.

“We started teaching people how to call 911 and what to say,” Nichols says. “It led to relationships with a lot of people. I spent 10 years working on the East Side in the C-District, and part of my territory was Sycamore Street, which contains a huge Muslim community.”

Proposals for a written language access plan were sent to the Police Oversight Committee by Sanyu, Lamin Tamang (President of the Bhutanese-Nepali Community of Buffalo), Daniel Leong (Board Member of Karen Society of Buffalo, Inc.), additional community leader signatories, and Lisa Strand, Esq., Joint Chief Attorney at the Legal Aid Bureau. This process stretched on roughly from March 2015 to January 2016.

“It included things that we were already doing or were in the process of doing,” Nichols says. “We didn’t have to change much. We are using language access in our domestic violence training, our culture and diversity training, and other police trainings. Basically what it does is it teaches officers how to recognize the fact that someone has limited English proficiency, what to do, to be sensitive to it and to be patient.”

Previous to having a written plan, the BPD started to host community workshops. These were geared towards issues such as the Fall 2014 burglaries in the Burmese community. According to Nichols, there are ongoing continued learning opportunities for Buffalo police officers and for officers in training as well.

“We train our officers twice a month,” Nichols says. “We gave the entire [Language Access] Plan to our Police Academy and asked them to make sure that there was nothing left unturned.”

In addition, BPD detectives will be following up on any unfinished and/or unsolved police reports from the days prior to a Language Access Plan.

“The reports were taken properly, but maybe they did not include the fact it was given in another language,” Nichols says. “We can go back and add that.  If it’s still an open case, our detectives will figure it out and reopen them if they need to be opened.”

Nichols addresses the need for more multilingual members in the BPD, especially in the top most-spoken languages – Somali, Karen, Burmese, Arabic, and Bhutanese.  The police examination is on June 18 this year. Court interpreters are also in demand; this is a position which pays $250 for a full day. (Visit nycourts.gov/courtinterpreter).

“We welcome the new members of our community and are committed to making sure language differences don’t stand as a barrier to justice,” says Acting Erie County District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty, Jr. in an exclusive conversation with Karibu News. “Our office uses interpreters from the International Institute in Buffalo to ensure that every ethnicity can fairly participate in the criminal justice system.”

Perhaps the only thing more important than implementing a comprehensive Language Access Plan is for there to be ongoing discourse between the Police Department and non-English proficient speakers. How will we know if the plan is working, and how can we surveil its effectiveness after March 15?

“This is the first step,” says Daniel Leong in the Karen Society headquarters on Niagara St. “This is a starting point. We have to make the public know that the plan is in place, so that we can make use of it. The government can be scary [for non-English speakers], especially when it comes to the 911 call. As we go along, we can work with the departments and see how it goes. It’s not the end of the road.”

The final version of the BPD’s Language Access Plan lays out procedures regarding training and also the tracking/recording of the Language Access Plan.  This is perhaps the most important section, as it will monitor the application of the plan and maintain some level of accountability for the BPD.

According to the Language Access Plan, the Police Oversight Committee is responsible for referring individuals to language access if needed.  The Committee, led by Council Member Rivera, is also responsible for monitoring the Department’s progress. Reports will be compiled “if possible” and contain information on the amount of calls received by the Department, along with any complaints and resolutions.

“I am so absolutely impressed by the hard grassroots work of the community,” says Lisa Strand,”I think it will be great to explore further how this will work in practice, and most importantly, to educate LEP persons on what to do.”

For individuals who utilize Language Access initiatives after March 15 and have questions or concerns, the next Police Oversight Committee meeting will not be held until March 2017. Right now, Mayor Brown’s Office of New Americans and its Director, Jessica Lazarin, can take your queries (851-4315). Lt. Nichols asserts that non-English speakers can walk into any police station if they have questions concerning the Language Access Plan or anything else.

Strand and Legal Aid can be also contracted by those with Language Access concerns. Call 416-7490,  and when leaving a message include your name, phone number, and the language that you speak. Strand has been a huge advocate for LEP persons and in passing along the initial language access proposal.

“How can immigrants hold off on their concerns about language access to once a year?” Strand says. “Don’t they want this to be a dynamic thing? Don’t they want feedback from the community? What are we supposed to be teaching the community so that they feel empowered? This civil right belongs to every person.”

“A very close relationship with the police department has grown over time,” Sanyu says. “They are doing a good job, but we need the same standard city-wide.”

Certainly, the BPD’s Language Access Plan raises more than a few questions regarding its concrete applicability, and whether or not there will be communication between community leaders and the Department. When it goes into effect on March 15, all Buffalo Districts will consistently provide Language Access services. Through practice, LEP persons can hopefully experience its effectiveness and begin a collaborative discourse with the BPD and the Police Oversight Committee.

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