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CALEA Update Magazine | Issue 96

Breaking Through the Language Barrier: Promising Practices from the Field

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Around five o’clock one morning, a police officer on patrol sees a car swerving erratically. It slows down as it approaches an empty intersection, but continues through the red light. The officer begins to follow, then signals the driver to pull over. As the officer approaches the car on foot, the driver, slumped in his seat, slowly lowers the window. The officer asks him for his license and registration. “¿Qué?” the man replies, still slumped forward. The officer repeats himself. “No hablo inglés,” the man responds. As the officer asks a third time, he mimes the act of removing a wallet from his back pocket. The driver opens the car door and begins to climb out of the vehicle. “Stay in the car and put your hands on the steering wheel!” the officer commands. But still the driver does not understand.

Whether they are making a routine traffic stop or investigating a homicide, law enforcement officers need to be able to communicate effectively to do their jobs. Yet, with the United States in the midst of the largest wave of immigration since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, incidents like the one described above—in which an officer is unable to communicate with an individual who does not speak English well—have become increasingly common.

In response, law enforcement agencies of diverse sizes and means have developed a variety of strategies for communicating with victims, suspects, and witnesses who are “limited English proficient” (LEP). This article looks at some of those strategies and offers a series of recommendations that police departments can use to improve communication with non-English speaking persons in their jurisdiction. It also describes briefly the experience of one law enforcement organization—the Anaheim (CA) Police Department—in putting these recommendations into practice.

A Language Access Plan

Since 2005, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Translating Justice project has collaborated with police departments across the nation to identify ways to improve communication between law enforcement and LEP communities.[i] Translating Justice has found that, as is true of many other policing issues, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for overcoming language barriers. What’s right for your agency and the community it serves will depend on several factors, including:

  • your agency’s size and resources;
  • the nature your agency’s core responsibilities;
  • the size of the LEP population in your jurisdiction;
  • the number of languages spoken in your jurisdiction;
  • the number of bilingual staff in your agency;
  • access to professional interpreters; and
  • the nature of any partnerships between your agency and the community.

In other words, to craft an effective strategy for overcoming language barriers it’s critical to have both a sound understanding of the LEP community your department serves and a clear sense of your department’s language capacity.

To begin, then, we recommend that police departments take a close look at language demographics in their jurisdiction. Which communities speak what languages? How often and in what way does your agency interact with those communities? Fortunately, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel: the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as local departments of education and city planning, are likely to have most of the information you need.

The next step is to conduct an internal audit of your agency’s language capacity. Are there bilingual officers on staff? If so, how many? What about bilingual civilians or volunteers? Do bilingual personnel have any formal language training? And can they read and write their second language? You may want to test the language skills of bilingual staff. If so, make sure that your test covers the skills—such as listening, speaking, reading, writing, and interpreting—that are relevant to your department’s needs.  

After you have a sense of the language demographics in your community and your department’s language capacity, you’ll want to formulate a language access plan. There are many strategies for promoting language access: having bilingual staff serve as interpreters for their colleagues is only one possibility. Even departments with limited resources and no bilingual officers on staff can find ways to bridge the language gap. Other options include: 

  • contracting with a telephonic interpreter service;
  • using handheld translators (electronic devices programmed to “utter” pre-recorded phrases in a target language);
  • translating common forms and documents; and
  • translating signs in command stations.

To ensure that your plan is implemented consistently and correctly, you’ll want to formalize it with a written policy that guides department staff on when to use language services. Also, agency personnel should receive training on how to work with any interpreters or language assistance technology (such as handheld devices or telephonic interpreter services) that your department will be using.

Of course, no language access plan can succeed without adequate funding. One way to pay for a language access program is to solicit funds from organizations with an interest in improved relations between law enforcement and the immigrant community. Possibilities include the following:

  • State criminal justice agencies. (Some agencies earmark funds for programs that explore new applications for technology in law enforcement.)
  • Local and community foundations that support efforts to integrate new immigrants.[ii]
  • Local businesses (such as banks and grocers) that cater to immigrant populations.
  • Chambers of commerce that represent ethnic or immigrant merchants and businesspeople.

Another option is to partner with other agencies in your city or county—including first responder and emergency services, the departments of public housing and social services, and the courts—to share costs, pool resources, and brainstorm new solutions. Just as neighboring law enforcement agencies partner with each other to provide mutual aid, local and regional departments can coordinate to develop and fund creative approaches for better communication with LEP residents.

Finally, when looking for sources of funding it can be useful to think outside the box. One of the Translating Justice project’s police partners funded a bilingual orientation video for newly booked detainees by slightly increasing the price of all items in its detention center commissary.

For a more detailed discussion of practical steps and strategies for promoting language access, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Translating Justice Project has developed a guide, Overcoming Language Barriers: Solutions for Law Enforcement, which is available on-line at

Overcoming Language Barriers in Anaheim, California

In recent years, the Anaheim Police Department (APD) has made a concerted effort to improve communication with non-English speaking residents in its jurisdiction. In partnership with the Translating Justice project, the APD has worked to put many of the language access strategies we have just discussed into practice. We believe you’ll find the following sketch of the APD’s experience useful as you consider how to promote language access in your own department.

Anaheim’s LEP population resembles that of many American cities: Spanish speakers predominate (with 72 percent of the city’s LEP population), but significant numbers of LEP residents speak other languages as well, including Vietnamese (7 percent), Tagalog (7 percent), Korean (4 percent), Mandarin Chinese (2 percent), and Arabic (1 percent). While the APD has a number of Spanish-speaking officers and civilians on staff, very few department personnel are fluent in any of these four Asian languages or Arabic.

After studying local language demographics, APD administrators created a Language Access Coordination team (LAC team) to formulate and implement an agency-wide language access plan. Members of the LAC team examined the following core department functions with an eye to promoting language access:

  • communications;
  • community relations;
  • information technology;
  • human resources (recruitment, hiring, compensation);
  • policy; and
  • training.

The LAC team began by reviewing and revising department policies in light of language access concerns. For example, after team members discovered that bilingual officers were expected to interpret for colleagues in addition to their regular duties—and that the prospect of extra work was a disincentive for many bilingual personnel—they revised department policy to reduce the workload of bilingual staff. Now, whenever a bilingual officer assists a monolingual colleague in communicating with an LEP victim, witness, or suspect, the monolingual colleague is responsible for any paperwork that results.

The LAC team has also sought to extend the 5 percent incentive pay that the department currently offers Spanish-speaking bilingual officers to all bilingual staff (including civilian personnel). At present, the department is developing a three-tiered incentive pay plan that will reward individuals with a 2.5 percent, a 5 percent, or a 7 percent pay increase based on their level of fluency in a second language.

To boost the language capacity of the APD’s civilian staff, the LAC team is actively recruiting bilingual individuals for the entry-level positions of cadet and junior cadet, traffic control assistant, and school resource officer. The hope is that, over the long term, some of the people hired for these positions will move up through the ranks.

Another strategy has been to pool language resources with other law enforcement agencies in Orange County. For example, the APD and other Orange County police departments have compiled a roster of all bilingual law enforcement personnel in the county—including home, work, and cell phone numbers—so that interpreters can be shared among agencies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Language assistance technology is also an important part of the APD’s language access plan. In recent months, the APD has been experimenting with internet-based translation services to assist with emergency translation needs (such as learning an individual’s name or determining how and where an individual is injured) until bilingual personnel arrive on the scene.

Finally, the LAC team has been working to translate common forms and documents—many of which were already available in Spanish—into Vietnamese, Korean, Arabic, and simplified Chinese. These documents include:

  • documentation related to the arrest, detention, and health screening of detainees;
  • fact sheets on “How to File a Citizen Complaint,” “How to Handle a  Traffic Ticket,” “How to File a Police Report,” and “Domestic Violence Information and Resources”;
  • search consent waivers;
  • the Miranda warning;
  • in-field identification admonishment form; and
  • information about the Anaheim Police Department and neighborhood watch programs.

Translations of these documents are being made available at all APD facilities. The LAC team is also posting multilingual signs with information about language resources in all APD facilities.

The Anaheim Police Department’s efforts have been leading to improved relations with the city’s diverse community. In fact, department administrators tell us that LEP individuals regularly thank the department for its efforts to improve language access, and that communicating in languages other than English is becoming an everyday affair for officers and community members alike.


As immigrant communities and LEP populations throughout the nation continue to grow, police departments of all shapes and sizes are developing creative ways to overcome language barriers. In doing so, they are helping to build strong relationships with the communities they serve and giving officers the tools they need to do their jobs effectively. We hope this article has inspired you to look at issues of language access in your own department.

The following account, written by an Arabic-speaking cadet in the Anaheim Police Department, is based on an actual incident. It illustrates how bilingual officers can help improve relations with limited English proficient (LEP) communities.

One morning, two men approached the front desk. One of them started to inquire about a vehicle in broken English. It was difficult to understand what he needed, but at length I gathered that his wife had told him the family car had been towed. When he handed me his ID, I noticed he had an Arab name, so I asked him (in Arabic) if he spoke Arabic. “Yes I do!” he exclaimed. I then asked again how I could help him. “My wife called and told me the police took my car,” he explained. “She said I should come to the police department to get it back.”

A computer check on the license plate revealed that the car had not been towed by the Anaheim Police Department. “In that case,” he said, “I don’t know what my wife is talking about. Will you speak to her if I call her?”

I agreed, so he called his wife and handed me the receiver. As I started to speak Arabic, she stopped me and said, “English, please.” So I explained the situation in English and asked her why she thought their car had been towed. “No!” she said. “My husband doesn’t understand me! I just told him to move the car so that it doesn’t get towed. Tell him the car is where he left it. He doesn’t speak English well and I don’t know much Arabic, so it’s hard for us to communicate.” I explained the situation to her husband and told him the car was where he had left it. He was greatly relieved and thanked me for helping him.

At this point, the other man, who turned out to be the first man’s brother, said, “I wish I had known the Anaheim Police Department had an Arab who spoke Arabic on staff! I was arrested just last week and I didn’t know why! Next time something happens can we call you?” I told him he could and that I would be more than happy to help him. Both men thanked me again and left.

[i] The Translating Justice project develops practical methods for communicating with people who do not speak English well in an effort to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair, humane, and effective in its dealings with immigrants. In addition to publishing Overcoming Language Barriers, the Translating Justice project has explored the uses of computer and networking technology in bridging language gaps, compiled criminal justice glossaries in Spanish and Chinese, and promoted awareness of language issues through workshops and technical assistance. For more information about the Translating Justice, please visit the Vera Institute’s website at



[ii] Visit the website of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees for a list of foundations serving your jurisdiction:

About the Authors

Susan Shah is a Senior Planner with the Vera Institute of Justice's Center on Immigration and Justice. She directs the Translating Justice technical assistance project, which assists law enforcement and other justice and public safety agencies in developing language access policies, as well as other effective strategies for serving immigrant communities. She has trained immigration and criminal justice practitioners in the areas of improving police-immigrant relations, effective community outreach, working with interpreters, and developing language access policies. Ms. Shah earned her J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law, her M.P.H. from Tufts University.

John Welter has been Chief of Police of the Anaheim Police Department since March 2004, following his retirement as Executive Assistant Chief of the San Diego Police Department. Over his 36 year police career, Chief Welter has worked on enhancing community policing and problem solving, and has consulted and trained others in modern policing operations throughout the State of California. In this capacity, he worked with communities, government agencies, and non-profit groups to help them identify their roles and responsibilities in Problem Oriented Policing strategies. Chief Welter holds an Associate and a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and is a 1996 graduate of the FBI's National Academy. He has conducted Police Management and Leadership training to Russian Police command personnel and has worked as a consultant and trainer with police officials in a number of European and South American countries, as well as throughout the Untied States. 

Michael A. Aquino has been a police officer with the Anaheim Police Department for over 24 years and currently holds the rank of lieutenant. His past assignments have included working as a Narcotic Investigator, Gang Investigator, School Gang Suppression Investigator, and Crime Task Force Investigator (Career Criminals). He has supervised patrol operations, the Tourist Oriented Policing Detail, Disney Contract Officers, Community Policing Detail, and the Personnel Detail, as well as serving as Patrol Watch Commander, Commander of the Strategic Services Bureau, which includes the Training Detail, Anaheim Stadium (Angels), Arrowhead Pond (Ducks), Anaheim Convention Center, Special Events, the Chaplain Program, and the Reserve Officer Program. He is currently assigned as the Bureau Commander of the Internal Affairs Bureau. Mike has received several awards, including the Investigator of the Year, Community Service Award, and the Distinguished Service Award, during his career, for his accomplishments in working Gang and Narcotic Investigations.


Susan Shah, with contributions from Patrick Kelly
And Chief John Welter and Lieutenant Michael A. Aquino, Anaheim (CA) Police Department
Vera Institute of Justice
New York
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