LAPD Found Lacking in Languages

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Non-English-speaking callers to the Los Angeles Police Department often receive no language translation, incomplete information and rude responses from police employees, according to a spot-check released by a coalition of immigrants' rights groups Tuesday.

Such patterns damage law enforcement credibility and undermine crime fighting, the report's authors said.

"This is not just a question of sensitivity but fundamental good public safety," said Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and a member of the LAPD's language policy task force.

The small survey tested the LAPD's ability to respond to callers who spoke Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Thai or Japanese. It said that when volunteers called police stations to ask how to file a police complaint, barely a third of callers were connected with appropriate translators.

In most instances, translation was inadequate or not provided, said Johnny Lai, co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Police Advisory Council, which headed the survey. Some LAPD employees hung up on the callers when they failed to speak English, he said.

"Only English spoken here," one police employee repeatedly told a caller, according to Lai.

The study, conducted over the last five months, involved 11 calls to the LAPD's citizen hotline and to four LAPD divisions--Rampart, Hollywood, Wilshire and Central--that frequently serve non-English-speaking citizens, said Kimi Lee, cochair of the advisory council.

The study's authors added that Spanish-language translation tended to be more available than translation for Asian languages. About one-third of the LAPD's employees are Latino and many are Spanish-speakers; fewer than 7% are Asian American, a department official said.

Tuesday, the study's authors presented their findings to police commissioners at the commission's regularly scheduled meeting. Commissioners noted the small size of the study, asked for names of the officers who gave the reported unsatisfactory responses and expressed interest in correcting the problem.

"Obviously we're concerned any time a caller doesn't get a response," said Raquelle de la Rocha, president of the commission. "Certainly we think this is important information . . . to highlight."

De la Rocha requested a more comprehensive audit of available services--to be released in about four weeks--that will include all the 18 LAPD divisions. She also requested information about language cards that once were distributed to each officer, but are no longer used because of problems with the translating company the department uses.

"If there isn't systematic training going on, we would like to encourage that," she said.

The study's authors admitted that their effort was not exhaustive. "I would call it a spot-check," Toma said. "A glimpse." Lai added that Police Department translators can be expensive, and the survey's authors chose to minimize costs to the department by placing fewer calls needing translation.

The report comes five years after an elderly Korean man, Dong-Sik Chong, was arrested after he became disoriented and, unable to communicate with police in English, was not provided a translator and was released unsupervised. He was found two days after his arrest, beaten and mugged. He soon contracted pneumonia and never fully recovered, dying two months later.

Chong's family blamed lack of available translation for the 81-year-old's mistreatment, and mobilized activists groups to raise awareness of the issue.

The result: A task force was created that included community groups and law enforcement officials who outlined long-range recommendations for improving the department's multilanguage program.

Most of the 20 recommendations, issued more than three years ago, have been fulfilled, but ongoing training is still needed, said Cmdr. Betty P. Kelepecz, who heads the department's program that tracks multilingual officers.

Kelepecz also agreed with activists that the task force's quarterly meetings, which stopped over a year ago, should resume. The meetings ceased when commission leadership changed, participants said.

"I'm as concerned with [the study results] as they are because this means some people are not getting the message," Kelepecz said.

Of the LAPD's 12,000 employees, including sworn officers and civilians, more than 2,500 speak at least one of 32 languages in addition to English, she said. Many speak more than one additional language, and some also write foreign languages, she said.

That number rose from 483 in 1974, and 1,560 in 1998, Kelepecz said, citing increased incentives, better tracking methods and a more ethnically diverse police force for the growth in department employees' language skills.

The LAPD offers tuition reimbursement for employees who take community college language courses and up to 5.5% salary increases for those who pass tests proving foreign language fluency, Kelepecz said.

Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, who is a member of the commission, said that each patrol car once had translation books that remained in the vehicles, but that they are now being computerized.

But, he said, "giving someone a cheat sheet without a lesson in pronunciation may not help assistance at all."

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