The New York City Police Department has been sued in Brooklyn federal court for allegedly not providing a Spanish-speaking interpreter or a Spanish-speaking officer to assist in cases where the victims spoke little English.
Wendy Garcia called 911 after her boyfriend shoved her and slammed a door on her, she said. She asked for a Spanish-speaker because she spoke little English.
She was able to explain what happened to the operator, but when police arrived ato her Queens home, they spoke "no Spanish, only English," and refused to get an interpreter, she said. Garcia, frustrated and crying, couldn't explain to them what happened, and she says they ended up taking information from her abuser instead. She was nearly arrested, she said, and nothing happened to him.
The 34-year-old from Guatemala is taking action. Along with four other Hispanic women, she has filed a federal lawsuit against the police for failing to bring Spanish interpreters following separate domestic violence incidents at their homes during the past two years.
"I am afraid," she told The Associated Press this week in Spanish. "I am afraid of retaliation, but I felt a necessity to speak out. My rights have been ignored," she said.
At a hearing this week in Brooklyn federal court, the city said it planned to file a motion to dismiss. Paul Browne, the chief spokesman for the NYPD, described the case as meritless and said that the NYPD has more foreign-language officers than any other department in the country.
Browne said the department has used a language service since the 1990s, at first for emergency calls made to 911 in foreign languages and more recently also in situations where an interpreter is needed in precincts and neighborhoods.
"In addition to having thousands of Spanish-speaking police officers on the job, the NYPD has recruited and enlisted members of the service in its volunteer translator program to assist the public and police in investigations and for other needs," he said. Browne's touting of the fact that many NYPD officers speak Spanish directly undercut by the facts emerging from a separate allegations against the NYPD that Spanish-speaking officers are reprimanded for speaking Spanish on the job.
“We’re a 24/7 operation,” an NYPD spokesman told the Daily News in defense of an alleged NYPD English-only policy. “We should be speaking one voice, which is English.”
The fact that law enforcement officials in the U.S. speak in Spanish has sometimes been criticized. The U.S. government banned Border Patrol agents from providing interpretation services for immigrants last year at the request of other agencies. Several activists had denounced the practice, alleging that agents used the opportunity to ask about the immigration status of people questioned.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the policy was dictated by federal law. "It's anti-discrimination laws that say that there is an English-only requirement in the workplace," Kelly said, adding that the department took no further action aside from a note in the officer's file.
It is unclear how the NYPD will reconcile its English-only policy with its assertion that Spanish-speaking officers are utilized to assist the public.
Garcia and the other women -- Yanahit Padilla, Arlet Macareno, Lina Carrion and Silvia Soriano -- say that when they were abused by their partners, they tried to request help from Spanish-speakers, but responding officers spoke only English and didn't offer interpreters.
They also accused the department of mocking and ridiculing them, and in some cases, listening only to the man's versions of the events because it was in English. The women are from Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala.
Macareno was arrested the night that she called police, though she said her husband pushed her and she fell down a flight of stairs. Padilla also was arrested after she called the police saying her boyfriend had beaten her.
The lawsuit claims that the police refused access to an interpreter for people with limited English, contrary to city policies that say officers must offer linguistic assistance to those who need it. The suit also argues that the police department "degrades, ridicules and otherwise mistreats limited-English-proficient individuals who request interpreter services, actively demeaning them for their lack of English proficiency."
The suit, which seeks an unspecified amount of money, also asks for changes in the system. It was filed on behalf of the women by Legal Services NYC. The Violence Intervention Program, an organization that helps Hispanic victims of domestic violence, is also a plaintiff in the case.
Garcia, who has lived in the U.S. for 11 years, said that the night she called 911, police listened to the English version of the events from her boyfriend. That night, it was actually her boyfriend who filed a complaint against her with the police.
"I have rights," she said. "One is the right to an interpreter. They should not have the right to humiliate people, Hispanics, who are undocumented," she said.
According to the lawsuit brought by the women, nearly 25 percent of NYC residents over the age of 5 have limited English proficiency and require the language assistance services of the police department. Browne said that the most requested languages are Mandarin and Spanish.
A spokeswoman for the city's law department said this week she expects the court will find these claims without merit, factually and legally.