Support a a permanent and comprehensive language access policy at the San Francisco Police Department
Dear Police Chief Heather Fong and Members of the Police Commission: We the undersigned support the adoption of a permanent and comprehensive policy governing language access at the San Francisco Police Department. Despite the critical public service the San Francisco Police Department provides, for over 100,000 San Franciscans, language poses a daunting barrier to accessing police services. In 2003 and again in 2004, language barriers contributed to the police shootings of Chinese Americans. Both people were seeking mental health services. If officers were actually able to communicate with the victims, we believe the situations could have been defused before escalating to shootings. In recent years, the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints and community groups have received numerous complaints from frustrated residents. Police officers have told Spanish- and Chinese-speaking residents that they must speak English. Children have been interrogated without a parent or interpreter present. Police have relied on bystanders to communicate with crime victims, instead of utilizing bilingual officers or the department\'s phone interpreter service. In the domestic violence context, police have unknowingly relied on batterers to interpret for their victims. For over a year, CAA, the Office of Citizen Complaints and the Lawyers\' Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco have met with the Police Department to develop an effective language assistance policy. As a result the Police Department has issued a temporary Department Bulletin and a Chief\'s message outlining the a policy of providing free language assistance and placing limits on the use of minors, children, bystanders and witnesses as interpreters. These are important steps, but not enough. San Franciscans need and deserve a permanent and comprehensive department policy governing language access. The right to access public services, regardless of language ability, is not a radical or novel idea. It is enshrined in federal, state and local laws. However, the San Francisco Police Department lacks a policy to guarantee compliance with these civil rights laws. The key elements of our proposal are straightforward: Provide clear procedures for police officers who need to access an interpreter. Make sure the policy is realistic and allows officers to address exigent circumstances where life and safety are threatened. Restrict the use of children, minors, bystanders and family members as interpreters. Post signs informing the public of the availability of free language assistance. Finally, designate an officer as a language access liaison to oversee training and implementation. A policy at the Police Department is a small, but meaningful step towards guaranteeing all San Franciscans can access critical social services without fear and regardless of the ability to speak English.