The NYPD's Spanish Language Problem

New York Police Department officers positioned along Broadway near Wall Street during a May Day 2012 demonstration.
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Five Latina women in New York City filed a lawsuit last week against the New York Police Department, the City of New York, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for failing to provide Spanish interpreters during separate house calls over the past two years.

Three of the women were victims of domestic abuse. Among them, Yanahit Padilla says that when police officers arrived at her home, they only spoke English despite her repeated requests for someone who spoke Spanish when she called 911. Moreover Padilla alleges that once at her home, police officers ridiculed her and arrested her instead of her attacker, who spoke English.

Watch the video above for more on the women's lawsuit.

Paul Browne, the NYPD's chief spokesperson, called the lawsuit meritless and said the department has a language service for 911 calls and for neighborhood or precinct requests, according to the Associated Press.

In addition, Browne said the NYPD has more foreign-language officers than any other department in the country. Many times, these officers end up voluntarily translating during house calls.

But ironically those same Spanish-speaking officers are being reprimanded precisely for that, speaking Spanish on the job.

Last week, nine Hispanic officers were issued memos for chatting in Spanish amongst themselves and violating the department's unofficial English-only policy.

This policy, which isn't written in any police department manual, stems from an Equal Employment Opportunity law that says: "requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace violates the law" but, the law continues, it may be justified in emergencies or when it's necessary to promote safety.

So clearly, the NYPD is sending mixed messages.

"They don't want Hispanic officers to talk to each other in Spanish, so the only time they're allowed to speak Spanish is when they need their services," said Anthony Miranda of the National Latino Officers Association.

While this English-only policy isn't explicit, what is certainly explicit is the city's policy to provide interpretation services when they are requested. But according to Miranda, who's also a veteran NYPD cop, there aren't enough interpreters, and many times it's easier for police dispatchers to request a Spanish-speaking officer.

Edward Josephson, a lawyer representing the five Hispanic women who filed the lawsuit, agrees.

"Their own procedure is to guarantee interpretation for anyone on demand but the problem is that their policies on paper are not translating to practice to what happens on the street," said Josephson to Univision. Agencies that receive federal money have to provide translation services on demand.

Josephson says the city plans to dismiss the case based on the argument that federal law doesn't create a right to language access. Their lawsuit is just at the beginning stages.

The ability of law enforcement officers to speak Spanish is controversial among immigrant advocate groups. They say Border Patrol agents may ask people questions about their status and may arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally.

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