Language Barrier for HPD

HPD is experiencing difficulties serving Houstonians because of the language barrier between them and many Houstonians.  See the article here.  Out of 5,300 total officers in HPD, only about 20% are bilingual.  904 officers speak Spanish, and the rest of the bilingual officers speak Vietnamese, two dialects of Chinese, and Korean.

There is no doubt that many of the people reading this are screaming at the computer, saying that if people would just learn English this wouldn’t be a problem.  Many of the comments made on the Chron.com article said the same.  So let’s steer clear of that argument for a moment.  Yes, it would be easier if everyone knew English, but HPD and Houston City Council cannot force Houstonians to learn English.  That would take state and federal intervention.  Even if all papers, forms, signs, etc. produced by Houston were in English only, you would still have many people who will not learn English because the state and federal government do not require it.  So we (Houston) can’t really change that. 

There is also no doubt that there are still people yelling at the computer, saying that they don’t care and that if a person can’t speak English then HPD shouldn’t serve them (harsh maybe, but I’ve heard that argument over and over again, and to be clear, that is not MY argument).  Here is why it is a bigger problem than you might think:  this goes beyond a lack of service for individuals who can’t communicate with HPD.  It becomes a problem for everyone in Houston.  When someone calls the police, it is marked down in their database.  Those statistics are used when the police chief is determining where to allocate officers.  So when there is a rough community out there with people who do not speak English, they are not inclined to call the police because they know the officer won’t be able to understand them.  Then there are few calls to the police, and HPD does not know that more officers are needed in this rough area.  This is not to say that all areas where people don’t speak English are bad – that is not what I mean.  What I mean is that the allocation of police officers is probably not accurate because of people not calling the police, sometimes due to language barriers.  I saw this often in Spring Branch when I was running for District A.

So since Houston can’t really change the fact that there are going to be people who don’t speak English, and since it is clearly a problem, what do we do?  One argument is that we should just train officers to speak more languages.  Currently, a Houston Police Department program pays $1.9 million annually in extra pay to 1,046 bilingual-certified officers.  $1.9 million is a lot of money, and it would cost a LOT more to train every officer in every common dialect that people speak in Houston. 

I think the best solution is to have bilingual support staff for HPD instead.  More often than not, they will be able to communicate via radios to moderate between the officer and the individual who doesn’t speak English.  This way, the officer won’t have to wait hours for a bilingual officer to show up.  Let’s put this into a monetary perspective.  They currently spend $1.9 million a year on this bilingual certification program for officers.  If they scrapped this program and used the money for support staff (who can also do paperwork and other items that officers are often bogged down with), they could hire 70 full time employees at roughly $14 an hour!  Surely they will not need 70 people.  Even if they hire half (35 people), they will have $940,800 a year left over.  We can use that money to pay a bonus to new bilingual officers. 

So to recap: $1.9 million a year is too much for a program that obviously isn’t working.  Scrap the program and hire some support staff who can moderate in language barrier situations as well as in other capacities in the HPD headquarters.  Spend the rest of the money left over from this program to attract new, bilingual officers.  Or give it back to the tax payers.

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