Woman settles wrongful arrest lawsuit alleging police denied her an interpreter

A Spanish-speaking woman who alleged police denied her an interpreter following a domestic violence dispute with her ex-partner that led to her wrongful arrest in 2014 announced a $50,000 settlement on Thursday in her lawsuit against the city.

However advocates said that barriers to language access persist in the police department.

“There’s an ongoing complaint from the community that there is not an effort to match bilingual officers with the need of the district, the station,” said Angela Chan, policy director and senior staff attorney with the Asian law Caucus, who represented domestic violence survivor Dora Mejia in the lawsuit.

“They don’t see language access as an absolute priority in the way they organize their department, respond to calls for service and investigate offenses, and this is an outcome of that,” said Chan, speaking at a press conference at the Women’s Building in the Mission District.

With the help of civil rights advocacy groups including the Asian Law Caucus and La Colectiva de Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Mejia filed the first of several complaints in October 2014 alleging that her rights were violated after police officers’ failure to provide her with an interpreter. She followed with a lawsuit in 2015.

A review by the Department of Police Accountability substantiated Mejia’s claims and resulted in disciplinary action against at least one of the officers involved in the incident in 2016.

Chan said that while the lawsuit was settled last Fall, it took nearly six month for Mejia to receive the payment.

“Working women, women of color and trans women live at the intersection of several forms of oppression but we are also at the forefront of the resistance,” said Veronica Nieto, of Mujeres Unidos y Colectivos. “Today, we are here celebrating Dora’s victory and hundreds of women that are afraid of the system and continue suffering from abuse and oppression in silence.”

Mejia’s case also resulted in the “slow implementation” of a 2007 department general order on language access that the San Francisco Police Department has been “dragging its feet in terms of complying with [and] implementing it,” according to Chan.

The policy, which required police to provide interpretive services for limited English speakers, was violated in May 2014 when Mejia’s former partner assaulted her in her Mission District apartment, then called police and accused Mejia of attacking him.

By the time police arrived, the partner had left the apartment, and Mejia, who speaks limited English, requested a Spanish-language interpreter but was denied access to the service.

Mejia’s ex-partner, however, was provided with an interpreter when police interviewed him over the phone.

Unable to defend herself in her native language and properly describe a history of abuse by her former partner, Mejia was arrested, forced to spent a night in jail, and seperated from her three children, who were placed in her ex-partner’s care for a month as a result of subsequent restraining orders filed against her.

“I do not wish any mother the pain of being separated from her children,” said Mejia, who on Thursday called for additional training for bilingual officers and an audit of the department to shed light on how it’s interpretation resources are allocated. “What happened to me was outrageous and because of that I have to stand up and speak up against this injustice.”

A working group that was formed when the 2007 policy was passed and is comprised of language access providers, domestic violence service providers, representatives from the District Attorney’s Office and the police department have been meeting “monthly” about the issue, according to Chan, who added that “progress has been incremental.”

Laura Waxmann
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Laura Waxmann

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