Policy Recommendation 06.20.03

Subject:  Providing Translators

Recommendation:  The Office of Citizen Complaints recommends that the San Francisco Police Department create a General Order and roll call training that requires officers to obtain a translator/interpreter to provide adequate language translation in situations where

1.) A civilian requests a translator; or 
2.) An officer is unable to provide services due to a language barrier

This General Order shall provide officers flexibility in obtaining translation assistance by calling upon bilingual officers, AT& T’s 911 foreign translation service and other individuals present at a scene who may offer assistance.  The General Order shall also provide clear guidelines as to when civilian assistance would be inappropriate because of the civilian’s status (e.g. The General Order would prohibit requesting a suspect to translate for a victim or a young family member to translate for a parent in domestic violence case.) 

Case Background:

Currently officers encountering a language barrier may contact the Communications Unit, Operations Center or ATT’s 911 foreign language translation service to request a translator.  Sometimes bilingual officers are available to provide translation; at times officers obtain assistance from other civilians at the scene who can translate. 

In 1999 the OCC made a policy recommendation that the Department provide a translator when either a civilian requested one or the officer was unable to provide services due to a language barrier.  Two cases had given rise to this policy recommendation.  In one case,  the complainant reported to the district station that he had been assaulted.  His request for a Spanish language translator was denied because the responding officer believed the complainant-victim spoke sufficient rudimentary English.  In a second case, an auto theft victim was unable to receive an administrative fee waiver due to the lack of intervention by a translator.  The officer stated during the OCC investigation that he did not request a translator through the local phone company because the forty-minute response time in the past was too long a delay given his other responsibilities. 

Throughout 2000 and 2001 The Department and the OCC meet several times to discuss this policy recommendation but ultimately, the Department never took action on the policy recommendation. 

The OCC has received numerous subsequent complaints that continue to demonstrate the need for new policy in this area. Responding to a domestic violence call, the officers refused the complainant’s request that her daughter act as a translator.  No interpreter was called to the scene and the complainant was interviewed in English.  The complainant believed that the lack of an interpreter resulted in the officers’ acceptance of her husband’s version of events and led to her being arrested as a primary aggressor.  In a previous domestic violence call involving the same husband, SFPD officers interviewed the complainant in Cantonese and the case resulted in her husband being arrested and ultimately placed on domestic violence probation.

In a second case, an officer responded to a landlord-tenant dispute.  The officer wrongly concluded through hand gestures and a limited English conversation with the landlord that she had been the victim of a verbal rather than physical assault.  The officer returned several hours because of another 911 call at the address, this time summoning an interpreter for the landlord.  Through the interpreter, the officer learned that the landlord had been physically assaulted by the tenant during the first call.

In a third case, during a traffic stop involving questions about his registration, the complainant asked in limited English whether he could speak with an officer who spoke Spanish.  The officer denied there was a language barrier and refused to call for translation assistance for the complainant.

In a fourth case, an officer arrested the complainant for public intoxication even though witnesses at the scene told the officer he had not been drinking and the PAS result was .00%.  At the station, the complainant’s request to speak with a Spanish-speaking officer was denied.

In a fifth case, the complainant’s passenger asked the officer if he could summon a Spanish-speaking officer because the complainant did not believe she could provide a complete statement and answer questions regarding a traffic collision in English.  The officer denied her request, which the complainant believed resulted in an incomplete investigation. 

In a sixth case, during a dispute between the complainant and a restaurant owner in which police intervened, the complainant asked that a Chinese-speaking officer be summoned to translate for her.  The officer denied her request.

Investigated by: Edward McMahon, David Aulet, William Huey, Mary Ivas, Helen Calderon & Mark Scafidi
Prepared by: SAMARA MARION, Senior Attorney
Approved by: KEVIN ALLEN, Director
Date: June 20, 2003