When Natividad DeJesus Hernandez appeared in Union County Common Pleas Court a day after police say he accidentally ran over and killed his son, the court did not provide an interpreter and Hernandez did not understand much of what was said in court.
SLIDESHOW: Images from the Scene (Hernandez Case)
In July of 2012, Uriel Juarez Popoca was found drunk and behind the wheel of his pick-up truck on the median of Interstate 71. Instead of arresting him or calling for an interpreter, a Delaware County sheriff’s deputy and a state highway patrol officer on the scene dropped Popoca off a nearby Taco Bell. Popoca was later struck and killed along the road.
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The Ohio Hispanic Coalition said police agencies and courts that receive any federal funding are required to provide interpreter services for people with limited English skills. Josue Vicente, executive director of the coalition said agencies have the resources but don’t use them often enough.
“They have contracts signed so they can be protected by the law,” Vicente said. “But the problem is that no one, no patrol officers have been trained properly in what the process is to request an interpreter, even for a scene.”
NBC4 spoke to several Hispanic women who said they were victims of crime including domestic violence, harassment and assault. They said they felt re-victimized by the system in trying to report the crimes and pursue the charges.
“We had to call the police but when they arrived they totally ignored us because we couldn’t speak English,” said one woman, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation.
She said she has called police a number of times because of threats, harassment, property damage and physical assault by a neighbor. She says the language barrier with officers made matters worse.
“They pay more attention to the neighbors because they really speak English well,” she said.
Sgt. Rich Weiner, spokesman for the Columbus Division of Police said of the more than 1,800 officers, the department has five patrol officers who speak Spanish and about a dozen other department employees who can be called if needed.
“You know, whenever a patrol officer responds and there is a language barrier, it’s frustrating not only for the officer but for the individual as well, we understand that,” Weiner said.
The City of Columbus also has a contract for telephone interpreter services available around the clock.
In a nine-month period last year, police dispatchers called the language line 50 times.
Out on the street, officers are first required to request an on-duty officer translator. If none are available, they’re required to contact a supervisor to approve a request for a contract interpreter.
Because of the recent water damage at police headquarters, NBC4 was not able to access records to show exactly how and when the language line services were used by officers on the street.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol has a similar contract. State records show the patrol used the language line services four times in 2013.
The domestic violence coordinator for the Ohio Hispanic Coalition assists victims through the court process. She asked that we not use her name. She says some victims feel humiliated by police and court employees because of their undocumented status.
“It’s like OK if you call in once again, I know you guys don’t have the documentation…we’re going to call in immigration to come and pick you up.” “What does that say? Don’t call me anymore.”
Weiner said officers are trained on how to handle language barriers and such exchanges should not happen. He said the resources are in place and department policy clearly allows for interpreters when officers believe one is needed.