APD Lacks Multi-Lingual Officers as Populations Continue to Grow

Who’s speaking your language

Marci Graham (Photo by Omar Rodriguez Ortiz)

As Choon Kim was driving away from his North Austin church several years ago, another car rammed into his. Like any good Samaritan, the Korean man called the police. When an officer arrived, Kim was stunned: The cop gave his attention to the English-speaking woman driving the other car, all but ignoring Kim's perspective.

"Why [do] you not hear me? I called you!" Kim, now 71, remembers asking the officer.

He's not the only foreign-speaking resident of the city who thinks the police are not appropriately listening. As Austin's population continues to increase, the city is seeing more and more languages other than English being spoken. That poses a big problem for a police department charged with keeping pace with the evolution. At present, the Austin Police Department only has 11 officers proficient in Asian languages, according to information gathered as recently as September. Yet the Asian population represents around 6.5% of Austin's residents, with representation mostly from India, Vietnam, and China. Projections show that, by the middle of the next decade, the number of Asians in Austin will more than likely exceed the number of African-Americans. While the general population of Austin doubles every 20 to 25 years, the number of Asians in Austin continues to double each decade.

To this point, APD has never set a specific quota for developing new bilingual officers, says Marci Graham, a sergeant with the department's recruiting division. "We'll take as many as we can," said Graham, who told the Chronicle that she had recently returned from a recruiting trip to Puerto Rico. "But as far as putting a number, we don't do that." The department has set up an annual stipend bonus for officers bilingual in "approved languages." Any officer recognized as bilingual receives an additional $2,100 each year. At present, APD claims four officers who speak Mandarin, four who speak Vietnamese, two who speak Korean, and one who speaks Thai, according to the Public Information Office. Among the other approved languages, there are 284 Spanish-speaking officers, seven German speakers, four who mastered American Sign Language, two proficient in Russian, and two in French.

APD has to this point not hired police officers who speak Cantonese, Japanese, or Malay. Nor has the department been successful recruiting cops who speak Arabic or Ukrainian. Hindi and Urdu are not approved languages that qualify for the stipend, even though they are more commonly used in Austin than German or Russian, according to Data USA. A department spokesman declined to say why the two languages are not on APD's approved list.

“If the city wants to grow, [APD] should get more bilingual officers.” – Yuanshu Cai, Asian American Cultural Center

Yuanshu Cai of the Asian American Cultural Center in Austin suggests: "If the city wants to grow, [APD] should get more bilingual officers." Lisa Cortinas, with the Public Information Office, says APD "doesn't have an annual budget allotment for bilingual pay," but that there is also no limit on the number of sworn employees who can get the foreign language stipend. The department adds that it's trying to place its bilingual officers on patrol beats where they're most needed. "APD tries to use an equitable system throughout the city regarding the placement of Spanish-speaking officers during their initial assignment," Officer Luis Cadena, an instructor at APD's Training Academy, told the Chronicle via email. "Speaking another language fluently may be a small contributing factor in where the officer may end up working."

Despite not having a framework to place bilingual officers where their language skills are needed, there are times when officers are able to help people whose first language is not English. A Taiwanese-American officer, who asked she not be identified by name, told me that she had to communicate in Mandarin with a father after he had left his baby in his car long enough for the child to die. The man was nervous and couldn't communicate in English. "Sometimes when you get ... distraught you go to your native tongue," said the officer, an eight-year veteran with APD.

Sgt. Graham told the Chronicle: "We want the police department to represent the community. As the police, we want to not only communicate, but be able to help people in need, especially if it is an emergency." The department does have a cultural immersion program that involves taking new cadets to various cultural centers in Austin to interact with ethnic groups and learn about traditions, biases, and customs. "If you don't know this, it makes your job harder," says the aforementioned officer. She added that she has received calls at home from officers who need her to serve as an interpreter for certain incidents.

When there is no bilingual cop available, APD officers can call the Language Line, a 1-800 number for Voiance Language Ser­vices, which has a contract with the city of Austin for $281,028, to provide real-time interpretation services. "It is not as good as having an officer on the scene with you, who can interpret, but it is at least another option," says Sgt. Graham.

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