When an elderly woman was fatally struck by a car in the heart of Chinatown in September, then-Supervisor David Chiu arrived to a disturbing scene.
Not only had 78-year-old Pui Fong Yim Lee been killed by a hit-and-run driver, but police were having trouble gathering any information from witnesses because no officers spoke Cantonese, the language of most neighborhood residents.
“There weren't any bilingual officers on scene,” Chiu said late last year, months after the Sept. 22 incident, adding that staffers from his office rushed to find people who could translate for the Cantonese-speaking witnesses.
Despite those efforts, Chiu said, “there were many witnesses that walked away.”
The absence of bilingual officers extends far beyond Chinatown and remains an issue for the entire city, advocates say, despite the Police Department's efforts to recruit and certify more bilingual cops. What's more, union seniority rules prevent the department from assigning the handful of bilingual officers it has to the appropriate stations, making incidents like the Chinatown hit-and-run more common than not.
Nearly half of The City's households do not speak English at home.
Nevertheless, the department's 217 certified bilingual officers and its phone-in translation service were touted at a recent Police Commission meeting as adequate for The City's needs.
The department's annual review of its Limited English Proficiency program Jan. 14 was upbeat about translation issues, noting that there were only 16 complaints made to the Office of Citizen Complaints and most were resolved.
Last year, of the 2,954 bilingual contacts, 2,699 were via phone, which advocates say represents only a small percentage of people who speak little to no English but need police assistance sometimes.
Paola Soto of Woman Inc., a domestic- violence recovery organization, said she often encounters domestic violence victims who needed translation services but did not receive them and never complained about it.
Non-English speakers, Soto said, are already vulnerable and isolated, and therefore more in need of the kind of official aid law enforcement can bring. Limited English speakers often have little contact with officials and come to the U.S. with a fear and distrust of cops due in part to previous experiences in their homelands. And they also might be afraid that calling police will impact their immigration status.
“Having negative interaction with police is the norm,” Soto said. “If they have a bad interaction with police they may give up.”
Such concerns prompted Police Commissioner Victor Hwang to worry aloud about the lack of face-to-face contacts that only bilingual officers can provide.
In a similar vain, Hwang questioned whether the department sends bilingual officers to the right stations.
“In a perfect world that would be great,” Police Chief Greg Suhr said. “But we're a union Police Department with seniority rules, and officers have the option to go where they want to go.”
One of eight bilingually certified Cantonese-speaking officers at Central Police Station, Howard Chu says he uses his language skills daily. But with three shifts working every day, even the eight bilingual officers aren't enough to communicate with community members at times, he said.
“If I take a day off, then there might not be a person here,” Chu said about officers who speak Cantonese at his station.
Citywide, that appears to be an issue. Language demographics compared to bilingual officer assignments show a disconnect.
In San Francisco, according to a 2013 neighborhood profile from The City, 46 percent of households do not speak English at home.
In the handful of neighborhoods that make up the Central Police District — mostly Chinatown, North Beach, Nob Hill and the Financial District — on average, more than 30 percent of households do not speak English at home. In Chinatown, that number was 84 percent.
But the Central station, with only 12 officers of Chinese descent, has only 8 Cantonese- certified bilingual officers. The station's total staff stands at roughly 120 officers.
In the Mission, where 37 percent of households speak Spanish and 11 percent speak an Asian language at home, the police station only has seven Spanish-certified officers.
And in the Bayview, 49 percent of households do not speak English at home. But only two officers in the police station are certified Cantonese speakers even though more than 30 percent of the area's population is Asian.
These numbers and the mismatch of resources worry some.
Angela Chan, a former police commissioner who is currently with the Asian Law Caucus, applauded the Police Department for its bilingual efforts, but said more needs to be done.
“San Francisco's department general order on language access is one of the best in the country,” she said, adding that there remain issues around assigning officers to the right stations. “It's an operational problem.”
The head of an advocacy organization who spoke to the Police Commission agreed with Chan, noting that language access remains a major issue.
“As advocates, we know from directly serving the community that there are many other domestic violence survivors who have also experienced similar denials of language access,” said Ana De Carolis of Mujeres Unidas, a support organization for Latino women. “We urge public-safety agencies to follow language access protocols at all times.”
Incidents point out language deficiencies
A legal claim filed against San Francisco by the Asian Law Caucus last year gives credence to department critics when it comes to language-access issues.
When Mission district officers arrived to the scene of a domestic violence and sexual assault call in May, they found Dora Mejia and the father of her three children engaged in a fight. According to the claim, the father received a translator, but Mejia's meager English skills seemed sufficient enough to the officers so she was not given a translator even after asking for one.
Mejia, who was the one who reported the domestic violence, ended up being arrested because the officers mistook the defensive scratching on the father as evidence that Mejia attacked him. While she was eventually reunited with her children and the father moved out, she did have to spend a night in jail.
In September 2012, a similar incident occurred when a deaf woman called police to report being domestically abused by her partner. Tiara Ducksworth, who is deaf, was arrested instead of her partner when officers mistook defensive wounds on Darrell Daniels for signs of domestic violence. Ducksworth was not provided a sign language interpreter and police refused to take her hand written notes as explanation for what happened.
She was released the next day without any charges.
Bilingual cops in SFPD
Certified bilingual officers
Certified Spanish-speaking officers
Certified Cantonese-speaking officers
Certified bilingual officers at four police stations and the percentage of households that speak no English at home:
Mission: Seven Spanish speakers; 37 percent of households speak Spanish
Central: Eight Cantonese speakers; 84 percent of households speak Cantonese
Bayview: Two Cantonese speakers; 49 percent speak no English at home
Northern: Three Spanish speakers, one Cantonese (most people in the district speak English at home)
Source: Police Department