Illustration: Syracuse Police Bilingual

n her first call into the field to translate Spanish for police officers, Rita Paniagua arrived at a scene of spoken, yet unheard confusion. A growing fire burned before the Syracuse home of a recently immigrated Peruvian family, whom officers had pinned against a wall away from the flames.

The family spoke mostly Spanish, Paniagua said. Officers present only spoke English.

Family members had set the small fire intentionally, accustomed to burning household garbage at their former house, Paniagua learned. Recognizing the miscommunication that had occurred, she moved quickly to explain the chaos and translate the officers’ intentions, she said.

The Syracuse police chief’s phone call asking her for translation aid that day in 2006 would become the first of many, said Paniagua, who at the time served as president of the city’s Spanish Action League.

“We created a very good relationship between the police department and the agency,” she said. “Little by little — and this was an unintended outcome, to tell you the truth — he started calling when they [Syracuse Police Department officers] got into situations.”

But with so much unsaid between Syracuse Police and Syracuse’s Spanish-speaking community, language barriers have remained an obstacle to date, Paniagua said.

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In Onondaga County, 11% of the population speaks a language besides English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Syracuse, the percentage is higher, with 18.6% of residents speaking different languages at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The numbers starkly differ among local law enforcement, however. Of the 392 sworn officers in the Syracuse Police Department, five officers speak languages besides English, said SPD spokesman Sgt. Matthew Malinowski.

The lack of bilingual officers compounds a disparity between the city’s racial demographics and the police department’s lack of officer diversity. Racial and ethnic minorities constituted less than one-fourth of the Department’s police candidate classes in 2019, according to an SPD annual report.

Black officers make up only 10.3% of the police force, while less than 2% of SPD officers identify as Hispanic. In contrast, Black and Latino people make up 30% and 9.4% of the city’s residents, respectively.

Federal law under the Civil Rights Act requires that police agencies with federal assistance provide accommodations for people who do not speak English well. SPD partners with a language line that provides translation services to those in the community who need it, Malinowski said

The department hopes to overcome its language barriers by diversifying officer recruitment, said SPD community relations officer Marlena Jackson.

“When we respond on-scene and somebody of that language needs assistance, we usually resort to the children [for translation] because the children are usually bilingual,” Jackson said. “They’re usually able, if they’re old enough, to provide the information that we need.”

Officers may also reach out to neighbors for help translating, but the process can be slow, Jackson added. Jackson and her partner have used mobile translation apps for assistance as well, although using the apps is not necessarily standard for SPD officers, she said.

Having more bilingual officers could streamline not only fieldwork but also strengthen the department’s efforts to deepen its relationship with Syracuse’s immigrant and refugee population, Jackson said.

A bilingual police force could also further empower people who otherwise experience a kind of community isolation without the words to fully express themselves in English, Paniagua said.

In Paniagua’s own encounters she saw how language brokering, the process of parents relying on children for translation, can often disrupt a family’s balance by placing more social and emotional strain on kids.

According to Texas A&M researchers, children of immigrants who serve as language brokers must bear the double burden of adopting a new culture and language while also living as “facilitators, or connectors between two worlds” for their parents.

From translating at school parent-teacher meetings to supporting Spanish-speaking families at court hearings, Paniagua’s work showed her firsthand an immediate need for bilingual policing in Syracuse, she said.

Ultimately, having the ability to speak and be heard can change people’s lives in ways that are hard to quantify, she said.

“It’s a two-way street,” Paniagua said, reflecting on her own work to establish a translation and interpretation language program at the Spanish Action League. “You want people to understand who you are, what makes you think, what are your customs, your beliefs. But you need to make a very good effort to understand, likewise, the same thing of the place you’re living in.”

CNY Latino President Hugo Acosta said the Syracuse Latino community has progressed beyond a dire need for bilingual policing.

Acosta has spent nearly two decades within central New York’s Hispanic and Latino communities. At times, he said, messages could naturally become lost in translation, although miscommunication between the community and police officers is rare.

He said after the death of Jorge Jimenez in a 2019 collision with Syracuse University head basketball coach Jim Boeheim, concerns about whether state troopers could fully understand or communicate with the Spanish-speaking crash victim in his final moments echoed throughout the Syracuse Latino community.

But Acosta doesn’t see a need for more bilingual police officers at the moment, he said.

“The language (barrier) is really an issue for the first or second generation — our grandfathers, our fathers, uncles,” he said. “Spanish is disappearing among us here in America.”

Yet in Syracuse, the need for Spanish language resources in city government and community services is more important than ever, said Ranette Releford, an administrator for the city’s Citizen Review Board (CRB). The Board investigates complaints against Syracuse police officers. More often than not, cases are filed by “Black and brown” people, she said.

Prior to the pandemic, community members came and went through the doors of the City Hall’s CRB office to file complaints about police conduct while hard-copy flyers in English and Spanish were distributed around Syracuse, said Lori Nilsson, a CRB committee member.

With City Hall and the rest of the city largely shuttered now, Releford said she has seen fewer cases come in, since people don’t know how to reach her and or may not receive information in their native language about the CRB.

Now, with a new SPD police reform plan in sight for Syracuse,  Paniagua said the opportunity to implement a more inclusive communication approach has never been more salient.

The plan is a product of a county-wide response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order requiring agencies with state funding to submit police reform plans by April 2021.

Per recent recommendations from the group that drafted the county’s reform plan, the Syracuse City Council is considering a labor contract with the police union to pay officers more if they speak a second language, Malinowski said.

The draft also requires SPD officers to use a translation app when speaking with people with communication disabilities. SPD is also researching the use of a translation app upon receiving feedback from Syracuse’s immigrant and refugee community.

With reform, perhaps both Syracuse minority communities and SPD officers can mitigate miscommunication, Paniagua said.

“Change is good,” she said. “It’s not easy, but it’s good.”