Breaking Buffalo's language barrier

Posted at 7:18 PM, Mar 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-03 15:15:32-05

Buffalo's foreign-born population is continuing to grow and that is increasing concerns about having proper Language Access Plans in place at area schools, hospitals and police departments.

Community leaders gathered for a forum on the issue at the Frank Merriweather Library in Buffalo.

One of the concerns that was addressed dealt with police.  

"Our job is to get out and help people, and sometimes it has to be done quickly.  When you have a language to overcome, it can be a challenge," said Lt. Steve Nichols from Buffalo Police.

Part of the communication problem involves refugees and immigrants who don't know how to call 911 or file police reports. In some cases, their experiences in other countries has left them fearful of trusting Buffalo Police.

"We have done a number of workshops with the community teaching them how to partner with us, how to prevent burglaries in their home.  We've given them a ton of safety tips, but more importantly, we've actually learned to work with them and they are working with us on making the phone calls to the Buffalo Police Department and to 911," added Lt. Nichols.

By mid-March, the Buffalo Police Department is planning to implement its new Language Access Plan where officers will carry special cards that non-English speakers can use to identify their primary language.

The Buffalo Office of New Americans is also distributing ID cards to refugees and immigrants which will have the person's name and the language they speak, as well as where they need an interpreter from.

However, there are some concerns about the new plan.

Community leaders from the Burmese and Bhutanese-Napali communities told the Buffalo Common Council they are concerned that a high number of burglaries and communication difficulties with police are causing an increasing number of families to leave Buffalo in fear.

"Their dreams are shattered in some ways and they need to see the American dream come true," said Lamin Tamang, president of the Bhutanese-Nepali Community of Buffalo.

Buffalo Police say they have made over a dozen arrests for burglaries targeting refugee neighborhoods so far this year.

Steven Sanyu, president of Burmese Community Services, Inc., said he applauded the City's effort to implement to the language access plan, but he was worried that not requiring officers to record how interpretations were conducted could make those statements to police easy to toss out of court.

"This is very important to everybody," said Sanyu.

Local attorney Lisa Strand, from the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, explained how the lack of interpreter information could impact a case.

"I could as a defense attorney say 'All that information is going to be suppressed because my client didn't have proper interpreting - and you have no proof of it,'" said Strand.

According to the Buffalo Office of New Americans, how to record interpreter information is something that is still being looked at.

"We are going to be working on what works best for the Buffalo Police Department.  Does it work for them to name the interpreter, or like some third-party interpretation services, just give the interpreter a number," said director Jessica Lazarin.

Lazarin said she is confident that the new plan can meet the reporting needs of the community, but the office is happy to discuss the concerns in more detail with community leaders.