Why Cops in Buffalo, New York, Must Hand Out ‘Language Cards’

New dangers for police as tensions arise from cultural barriers among non-English-speaking populations

We have always been a welcoming country. I grew up in the “melting pot” of New York City and heard enough languages and dialects to compel a linguist to join the monastery.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood, the merchants’ culture was typically telegraphed on their store signage and typified by their nation-of-origin flag flowing in the breeze outside.

The snaps of Italian, Polish, German, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Greek and Japanese flags were omnipresent. And the New York City Police Department dealt with problems any immigrant had that required police intervention.

Professionally, I’ll do everything possible to thwart those who seek to do me harm.

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The NYPD is our country’s largest municipal police agency. Given its magnificent size — roughly 36,000 sworn and 18,000 civilian personnel — New York cops originate from over 100 countries and speak 75 languages. The mix of cultures and languages among NYPD police officers makes them effective linguists with badges. Under its Foreign Language Outreach, the NYPD has over 1,100 certified interpreters among its contingent in blue.

But what about the multicultural demographics of smaller law enforcement agencies? How are other cop shops handling language barriers? Is it incumbent for police to come up with communication methods for non-English speaking folks? Do we solely rely on immigrants learning our language?

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Buffalo, New York, cops came up with a program it dubbed “I Speak…” cards. Upon each card is a list of 75 languages for a foreigner of non-English descent to choose his native tongue so that police can arrange for a translator. So far, Buffalo PD has distributed 10,000 “I Speak” cards. With a burgeoning immigrant population, Buffalo is becoming another NYC. But the philosophies pertaining to cultural indifference pervade.

Assimilation. One constant argument is that any foreign-born individual who opts to resettle in America should learn the English language. This particular debate swings like a pendulum, intensifying as the immigration initiatives of our U.S. presidency keep taking hits from unelected U.S. District Court judges.

“Once immigrants learn English, higher-paying jobs and education are easier to obtain.”

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A predominant assertion is that it is the responsibility of every refugee to learn our language. It talks to the issue of nationalism, patriotism, and declaratory allegiance to the U.S. — including its language.

Naturally, several variables are involved, such as self-study (before endeavoring to come to the U.S.) and/or ESL courses (the advent of online study excuses no one). Even after one arrives in America and establishes citizenship, the confluence of assimilation should not diminish. Instead, it ought to intensify. There is much to learn, and the freedom to do so must not be supplanted by mere expectations. Invest in your country so your nation can invest in you.

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Also, since arranging translation requires time and effort to facilitate, the exigency of justice measures is stunted. This factor reverts back to learning the native language so that obstacles are overcome and expedient police and other services are accessible.

As Buffalo Police Captain Steve Nichols described to The Buffalo News’ reporter, “We hand the card to someone who doesn’t speak English and ask them to point to their language so that we can call Language Access and get somebody.” One hopes the immigrant’s communication level is competent enough to understand point to your language so we can call someone to speak with you.”

It’s a start, I suppose. Perhaps it will be perceived as an encouragement to learn our language, one hopes, and to opt away from cue cards.

As a pioneer in policing, the NYPD’s website has a “Translate” button atop their “Victims of Crime” page (as with all other site pages) that, when clicked, exposes 104 foreign languages from which immigrants can choose to help acquire information and determine police processes. Self-help 101 will always open many doors, providing one reaches for the handle.

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In June 2012, the NYPD launched what it calls the Language Access Plan (LAP), which encompasses a human translator or foreign-language interpretation via a police tradition known as the Language Line. As mentioned earlier, the NYPD has cops among its cadre who speak a collective 75 languages from 100-plus countries. Naturally, that ability is utopian and cannot be instituted by most of the nation’s 18,000-plus police agencies. It is just not plausible, especially since most cop shops are categorically “small” departments with meager fiscal means.

Officer safety protocols. Although communication is inherently valuable in police community relations and the criminal justice delivery system, the seemingly innocuous gesture of “I Speak…” cards poses potential threats against cops. Whether one is a victim, witness, or suspect, reaching into pockets is neither an acceptable practice nor a good idea when in the presence of law enforcement officers.

As taught at police academies all across the United States, Watch the hands! The hands will kill you!” is a lifesaving credo cops keep close to the vest. Rightly so.

That statement belies a personal-professional fusion. Personally, I want to return to my family. Professionally, I’ll do everything possible to thwart those who seek to do me harm. And that speaks to the issue of “officer safety,” always keeping the hands in plain sight, forfeiting nothing in the process.

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As Buffalo police captain Nichols explained in The Buffalo News report, “To me, one of the biggest things is finding out what their relationship (with law enforcement) was like in their countries. We’re finding that in a lot of cases, the relationship wasn’t so great.” That very element is a two-way street, with emphasis on preconceived human behavior that sometimes goes awry, endangering all involved parties. Further, how do police find out if the actor does not speak English? Advantage goes to the refugee on our home soil.

These cards only let people remain blissfully ignorant to the language of the country they moved to and will deter them from trying to learn English.

Never the naysayer, but as a retired policeman exposed to the hypersensitivities in our society today, I twitch at the motion of a foreign-language-speaking individual reaching for an “I Speak…” card too swiftly. Counterintuitively, the purpose is to communicate with police, but that is rather defeated when universal police admonitions “Let me see your hands” and “Do not reach in your pockets” spoken in English fall flat and intensify the exchange. To some, the police suggestion for everyone to refrain from burying hands in pockets may jab personal egos, but it is meant as an all-around safety feature.

A comment I found in response to this topic matter and Buffalo PD’s “I Speak…” program sums it up from a home-grown perspective, as follows: “The bottom line is this does nothing to help in the long run. If immigrants, legal or not, want to be successful in this country, they have a far better chance to, if they assimilate and learn our language. Once they learn English, higher-paying jobs and education are easier to obtain. These cards only let people remain blissfully ignorant to the language of the country they moved to and will deter them from trying to learn English because they know there is a card and a number that will accommodate them. Instead of paying for all these translators to translate our language to their language, pay them to teach ours instead.”

As an American-born friend of mine qualified his successful deployments to foreign nations, “I learned their language. It’s only proper respect.” It’s not obligatory, but it sure helps to be customary, making interactions absolutely robust. I speak the truth.

What is your take on this subject matter? Are we too flexible? Are we expecting too much from refugees who resettle in America?

Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.

Read more at OpsLens:
Respect the Rank
Dereliction of Duty

meet the author

Stephen Owsinski is a LifeZette contributing editor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is also a columnist for the National Police Association.

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