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Buffalo lawmakers vow to help police, immigrants smooth language barrier

WBFO file photo

Buffalo Police officers have had a plan in place since last year to address cases when officers deal with individuals who do not speak English as a first language. But lawmakers recently heard from individuals within the immigrant community who suggest it's not necessarily going as smoothly as planned.

Among those who testified before the Common Council at a recent hearing was Juvenil Nahimana, who along with his family arrived in Buffalo from Burundi. Tragedy struck the family recently when his infant child fell ill and died. While the family was still mourning the loss, Nahimana explained with the help of an interpreter, Buffalo Police officers arrived at the family's home to investigate a claim that the child had been buried in the backyard.

Those claims proved to be false but Nahimana explained that an interpreter was never made available. Officers instead got their information during the investigation from one of his older children.

Since last summer, Buffalo Police have implemented a Language Action Plan which includes the distribution of a card listing numerous languages when responding to a call involving someone whose first language is not English. Once that person's primary language is identified, officers may call a telephone system through which the appropriate translator may communicate.

"It's very simple to get an interpreter," said attorney Lisa Strand, who advocates for many local immigrant families. "It's Dial-An-Interpreter. You dial a number, ask for the language, and they hook me up with an interpreter who speaks that language."

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, who was present to hear Nahimana's testimony, stated he was unaware of the case but would investigate further.

City lawmakers suggested they do not fault the police for any continuing barriers between officers and immigrant residents. Rather, according to Council President Darius Pridgen,  it's up to City Hall to do more. He drafted a resolution calling for creation of a "language task force" to look into ways to smooth out remaining differences.

"We have to have that conversation and not run away from it, Pridgen said. "The one we're not seeing is a decrease in the amount of new Americans coming to Buffalo. We need to take care of it."

Strand was asked about how the system could be improved.

"I really think that the core of the police staff who were involved with this from the start are very well aware of what to do and how to do it," she said. "It is a police force of hundreds of officers. I think it will take time for each and every one of them to know exactly how to use the service."

Buffalo Police Captain Steve Nichols told WBFO officers have been using the cards and know what to do in the field. He also praised Erie County for the service it utilizes for its interpretation needs. But the challenges, he added, are not limited to the nations and languages. There are also the various dialects that exist from region to region within those countries of origin.

"Especially Asian countries. A country the size of Burma has 39 different dialects," Nichols said. "It can get very difficult to find the right interpreter." 

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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