First Responders: Breaking down language barriers

Updated: Feb. 24, 2020 at 10:58 PM CST
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - We’ve heard the city of Huntsville is on track to becoming the largest city in the state by the year 2024.

We can credit that to job growth and industries relocating to the Rocket City.

We examined how we're growing in other areas, and the impact it has on first responders when someone doesn't speak English.

"He's Indian. He don't speak a lick of English," the statement made by former Madison Police Officer Eric Parker. It was caught on dashcam video from an arrest in 2015.

It was an encounter between Madison police and an Indian Grandfather visiting his family, who just happened to be out for a walk that day.

But he just couldn't tell that to then Officer Eric Parker and the rookie with him.

He couldn’t understand them, but it was a take-down that some really couldn’t understand.

Parker was charged with violating Sureshbai Patel's civil rights and assault from excessive use of force.

Two federal trials resulted in mistrials and Parker's charges were dropped.

However, a civil lawsuit from the Patel family is still pending against the City of Madison and the former officer.

Something Madison Police would not address.

After asking repeatedly, I also couldn't get specifics on what the police department does now, years later to address language barriers in policing.

I wondered if all Madison County agencies were doing enough about language barriers.

"The short answer is no but we are attempting to," said Yalitza LaFontaine.

Yalitza LaFountaine is the Director of Operations at Asha Kiran, a crisis service organization that helps foreigners navigate this community.

The organization’s language line offers 45 different languages for police to utilize. Examples include acting as an interpreter during a police investigation, helping a victim of domestic violence or providing counseling.

"It's important that it not just be about language access but cultural competency, cultural awareness, when I approach and I sense that this person doesn't understand me screaming at them isn't going to help," added LaFountaine.

LaFountaine said it comes down to providing the same service to everyone and in some areas, we're failing, for example at the Madison County jail.

"For somebody who doesn't speak English, when they go in there, there is no signage. There is nothing that says ask for an interpreter or do this," explained LaFountaine.

Huntsville Police have called on Asha Kiran's services many times.

“We have a lot at our fingertips, there is no excuse for an officer to not to be able to communicate at the end of the day with an individual,” said Huntsville Police Officer Paul Nordan.

Officer Paul Nordan is the main recruiting officer for the Huntsville Police Department.

They already spread bilingual officers across every shift and are working to recruit with a focus on diversity and finding the right people.

"I want someone with high moral character, integrity, somebody who is mature enough to display professionalism and represent this city and its great citizens," said Nordan.

Police also have Huntsville Hospital at their fingertips for help.

Pam Smith spearheaded the language program about 15 years ago.

It's grown to having 4 full time, bilingual staff members at a patient's bedside, 7 days a week.

With back up, they have 26 Martti devices with trained interpreters on the other end.

"Especially in triage or when a patient comes in on an ambulance, we have to make sure that we know what we are looking for and what we are looking at," said Pam Smith, HH Manager of Patient Care Services.

In total, Huntsville Hospital can speak to patients in more than 250 languages.

The languages in demand behind Spanish - Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle established the Office of Multicultural Affairs, it's a point of contact for the diverse cultures in the city.

It offers partnerships, programs and services.

If you ever need help, the Asha Kiran Hotline is 256-509-1882.

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