City begins bilingual training for criminal justice employees

San Francisco has begun a pilot program intended to train criminal justice agencies to better serve residents with limited English, the city announced this week.

The effort, initiated by Mayor Gavin Newsom and District Attorney Kamala Harris, is aimed in particular at helping domestic violence abuse victims with little or no English-speaking capability, who may have difficulty communicating with police officers, 911 operators and attorneys, according to Tomas Lee, director of the city's Office of Language Services.

A 2007 study by the city's Department on the Status of Women found that interpretation services for domestic abuse victims were “inconsistently available and of poor quality,” according to the mayor's office.

Newsom said in a prepared statement announcing the new program that access to language services “is a civil right of every citizen,” and “should and must be available to all city residents, businesses and visitors.”

On Friday, the city began offering elementary Spanish classes to employees of the San Francisco Police Department, District Attorney's Office, Public Defender's Office, Adult Probation Department and Department of Emergency Management.

The classes are voluntary and are based on requests from department staff to be able to communicate basic terms in Spanish, Lee said.

About 40 people are already enrolled, according to Lee.

Lee said having department staff fluent in other languages is also more cost-effective than having to hire translators.

Further trainings are planned for the spring in Cantonese and intermediate Spanish, as well as bilingual training in technical legal terminology.

“As prosecutors, we need to ensure that every victim and witness can assist us in holding offenders accountable,” Harris said.

“When women know that there are multilingual services and that officers can speak their language, they are more likely to come forward to report violence and abuse,” added Emily Murase, executive director of the Department on the Status of Women.

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