Failure to Translate Can Be Tragic

Gisela Concepción complained that she cannot understand the signs posted by NYCHA in her building because they are in English. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via EDLP).

Gisela Concepción, a Dominican, complained that she cannot understand the signs posted by NYCHA in her building because they are in English. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via EDLP).

The recent murder of a woman and her two daughters in Jamaica, Queens, could have been prevented if the NYPD had translated the police report that the victim wrote in Spanish accusing her husband of domestic abuse. The case has brought to light the deep flaws in the city’s legislation on the issue of language barriers within governmental agencies.

The regulations currently in place require all government agencies to provide free translation services to people with limited or no command of the English language. However, grave omissions and implementation difficulties have in some cases led to tragic consequences.

In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Executive Order 120 requiring all municipal offices — including the police department — to provide free translation services to all constituents. In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order 26, which makes it mandatory to translate public documents into several languages. Both of these programs are funded by local and federal monies.

“The city has made some progress, but Bloomberg did not go all the way with the legislation. We expect de Blasio to press on to enforce these laws,” said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy and founder of Make the Road New York, one of the several community organizations that have tirelessly fought to change these practices.

Relatives of Deisy García and her daughters (pictured) complain that their assassination could have been avoided if the NYPD has translated a police report. (Photo: EDLP).

Relatives of Deisy García and her daughters (pictured) complain that their assassination could have been avoided if the NYPD has translated a police report. (Photo via El Diario/La Prensa).

The shocking murder of Deisy García and her two young daughters, stabbed by her husband and the father of the children, Miguel Mejía, happened just as de Blasio’s term began. The woman had reported her husband’s death threats and physical abuse, but officers at the 103rd precinct filed the report as “harassment” instead of “domestic violence.” Consequently, Mejía was not arrested or even contacted about the accusations.

Roger Asman, the attorney representing the mother and grandmother of the victims, is preparing a lawsuit against the NYPD. Asman is in possession of two police reports written in Spanish by the victim in May and November of last year. In them, the woman narrates in a desperate tone how her husband pulled her hair, shoved her and pronounced death threats against her and her two daughters.

El Diario/La Prensa had access to one of the reports in which Garcia wrote about an exchange with her former partner, and it confirms the information above.

“They did not translate the report, look at the most important details in it or even give the victim the protection that she was constitutionally entitled to,” said Asman.

The NYPD is now also facing a class-action lawsuit for seven similar cases.

The attorney hired by the plaintiffs, Amy Taylor, said that “the NYPD does not seem to have a system in place to ensure that its officers will follow procedure. And if it does have it, they are not following it.”

The most recent case was that of Elena Jiménez, a 34-year-old Dominican woman who called 911 on January 30. Upon returning home from the hospital with her son, Jiménez found that her husband had changed the locks of their house in Norwood in the Bronx. Even though she had the restraining order against her husband in her hand when officers from the 52nd precinct arrived, she was the one ordered to take all her belongings out of the house in trash bags.

“I don’t know what my husband told them, but they gave me five minutes to pack my things and leave,” said Jiménez, who arrived in New York one year ago and does not speak English.

In response to these cases, the police department has promised to correct the flaws in their system, while Commissioner William Bratton admitted that he made a mistake. The NYPD has 1,200 qualified interpreters in their ranks for over 70 languages.

Cases in Housing

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is required to provide language assistance personnel and services to anyone who does not speak English. Residents of three large housing “projects” in the city, home to at least 1,000 Hispanics, say that they have to deal with administrative personnel who speak only English and that notifications from the agency are only printed in that language.

Gisela Concepción, a 62-year-old Dominican woman, is one of these residents. She recently received an important notice in which she was asked to renew her rental contract. She did not do it because the letter was written only in English and she did not understand the request.

“I need the help of my neighbors to translate all the notifications they send out. The worst part is that I cannot report any problems in my apartment because no one speaks Spanish at the office,” said the woman.

NYCHA says that their policy is to offer free translation services to all residents who need them and that they will make sure that all employees in their housing projects become familiar with the policy.

“We take every complaint from our residents very seriously and we will make sure that our employees implement our Language Assistance Services in an adequate manner,” said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Councilman Ritchie Torres, chairman of the Committee on Public Housing, is said to be “very concerned” about the reports on the lack of qualified staff to meets the needs of residents who do not speak English. Torres promised to play a role in changing that.

“This is an inexcusable failure of the service provided to public housing residents, and I will make sure that NYCHA corrects the problem,” said Torres, who has already helped Ms. Concepción obtain a new appointment with NYCHA.