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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Chelsea Binns
October 20, 2015
The law enforcement community is leveraging emerging technologies to improve its ability to communicate with New Yorkers. In recent statements, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton and New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced exciting technological advancements, including electronic translation services, to bridge potential communication gaps between police and community. By removing language barriers, this technology is expected to bring law enforcement closer to the populations they serve.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) has been actively focusing on technology, one of the five cornerstones of its recent Plan of Action. This plan presents a “series of strategic changes in how [the NYPD] performs its critical police mission.” Overall, the NYPD designed its plan to “activate a shared responsibility for a safe and fair New York…to continue the success against crime, to bridge the gap between police and minority communities and to rebuild police morale.”
In a recent presentation at New York Law School, Commissioner Bratton discussed his department’s use of technology, which positions it as the “most advanced police department in America.” According to Bratton, the NYPD investment in technology includes:
Bratton highlighted smartphones as a key piece of technology improving communication between the NYPD and the public. For instance, officers will soon be able to access instant foreign language translation services on their smartphones. Officers will simply hold their phone up to a given member of the community, ask them to speak into it and the phone will return an audio and written translation of the person’s statement. Commissioner Bratton says this technology will enhance the ability of the NYPD to communicate with the 59 million tourists and a population representing the one quarter of the city’s residents for whom English is a second language.
Although technology doesn’t come cheap, Commissioner Bratton is well-supported in his efforts, reporting “there is nothing that [he is] looking for that [he is] not getting” with “hundreds of millions of dollars” to fund these advancements. According to Bratton, one source of those funds is forfeiture monies from entities charged with wrongdoing that were reinvested back into law enforcement.
On a state level, Attorney General Schneiderman similarly announced a plan to enhance communications between the Yonkers Police Department and their community. The plan was part of the Law Enforcement Language Access Initiative, launched by the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau in 2012. Its goal was to increase communications between law enforcement and the non-English-speaking community and equalize access to law enforcement services.
The audience of these services is vast. Per recent estimates, the non-English-speaking community in New York State is comprised of 2.5 million people. It includes people who don’t speak English as their primary language and those with a limited ability to read, speak, write or understand English. Specifically in Yonkers, enhanced communications would benefit “48 percent of the population over the age of 5 [that] speaks a language other than English.”
In August 2015, Attorney General Schneiderman announced an agreement with Yonkers to establish a formal language access policy. The agreement provided for “policies and practices that will improve delivery of law enforcement services to the diverse Limited English Proficient (LEP) community of Yonkers and enhance community-police relationships, for everyone’s benefit.”
Since 2012, reports indicate similar language enhancement programs have been established in law enforcement agencies across the state, to include the Nassau County Police Department, Middletown Police Department, Rochester Police Department, Ontario County Sheriff’s Office and Wayne County Sheriff’s Office.
Police in New York may also use their new smartphones to access existing language services. For instance, the existing translation service, Language Line, that is utilized in Yonkers, can be accessed via smartphone.
An analysis of smartphone access data from October 2013 showed New York Police might underutilize these services while in the field. However, officers had a good explanation. They rely on their fellow officers and fellow New Yorkers.
When asked, a representative for Language Line told the New York Times “officers often opt to use other resources.” Per NYPD Deputy Chief Kim Y. Royster, those resources “include the use of bilingual members of the public and bilingual members of the service.” As of 2014, a reported 15,000 NYPD staff members “sp[oke] a language other than English, including 8,895 who speak Spanish.” There are 1,260 certified interpreters within the NYPD.
The language skills represented in the NYPD are expansive. According to NYPD data, their officers speak 75 foreign languages, including Spanish, Chinese (multiple dialects), Russian, Korean, Polish, Arabic, Urdu, French, Bengali, Japanese, Creole and Italian. In addition, the NYPD has at their disposal a 1,400-member “volunteer translator program” comprised of good Samaritans who have agreed to offer translation services to the NYPD.
While technology is improving community-police relations, New York citizens have long benefited, and will continue to benefit from, the existing language capabilities of their individual police officers and fellow community members. The volunteer translator program is evidence that the police and community can work together to overcome language barriers. It is anticipated that technology will provide welcome enhancements to the established program.
Author: Chelsea Binns is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice, Legal Studies and Homeland Security at St. John’s University. She can be reached at [email protected].