Robert Dziekanski, a 40-year-old Polish citizen who spoke no English, arrived at the Vancouver International Airport on October 14, 2007. Dziekanski, a construction worker, was the only child of Zosia Cisowski. Cisowski, according to news reports, had emigrated to Canada, then worked two jobs for many years in order to send for her only child.
But when Dziekanski made the long journey from Poland to Canada, what was set in motion was the backdrop for an enormous and very public tragedy. After flying from Frankfurt, Germany, on the last leg of his trip, an exhausted and jet-lagged Dziekanski landed at the airport, hoping to see his mother waiting for him. That was not the case.
Although his mother had come to the airport, the two never connected. Instead, Dziekanski found himself imprisoned in the airport's confines, unable to cross through immigration to find her and incapable of communicating with airport officials, police or well-meaning passers-by. Ignored and at the end of his rope, Dziekanski grew frustrated and violent.
Because the incident was obviously escalating and playing out to a captive audience of travelers, one man with a video camera began to film it. Another, using the camera on a cell phone, also recorded it.
The grainy, shaky cell phone video portrays an obviously distraught Dziekanski pacing behind a glassed-in area that separates him from other travelers. At one point he picks up a chair as if he plans to throw it, then puts it down. He also hoists a small table. Although difficult to discern, he apparently also grabbed some computer equipment. Comments from bystanders who were following his movements indicate they realized he spoke no English. Several are heard speculating that he is Russian. One woman suggests that he might be speaking in Hebrew.
What they don't know is that Dziekanski has been in the airport for at least six hours, unable to leave, contact his mother or find anyone who understands him. At this point he has spent close to 24 hours or more on this journey.
A woman approaches Dziekanski in an attempt to communicate with him, but her efforts are in vain. Soon airport security is on the scene. One official is heard on the radio requesting a Russian interpreter. No one shows up, but Dziekanski doesn't speak Russian anyway. Besides, in a few seconds — about the amount of time it takes to punch up a telephone number on a cell phone and hold a brief conversation — Robert Dziekanski will die on the airport floor surrounded by police, in front of dozens of witnesses.
In the video, four officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) approach him. They subdue him with force, taking him down and hitting him with an electronic control device (ECD) at least twice. The take-down does not appear unreasonable. The officers who responded could not communicate with Dziekanski, nor he with them. He also could not comply with their orders because he did not understand them, and they could not understand him. Whether ECD should have been used is a subject currently under exploration by Canadian authorities.
Somehow during the scuffle, Zosia Cisowski's son's heart quit beating and his hopeful journey to his new country ended on the floor of the airport, without anyone understanding a word he said.
Later, after viewing a videotape of the incident, Dziekanski's words were translated. He was calling for help and asking for the police.
Cell phone footage of the incident, posted on You Tube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CR_k-dTnDU) and an eventually released videotape incensed both the Polish people and Canadian residents. Inquiries into the matter are ongoing and appear to be a vehicle for a change in RCMP's ECD policy.
One thing that could have possibly prevented the tragedy from the very beginning has not attracted the publicity it should have: If someone could have translated for Dziekanski, there is a good chance he would be alive today.One nation, many languages
In 2006, more than 33.5 million people came to the United States from other countries for temporary visits. This includes everything from performers to seasonal workers to tourists.
That same year 12.1 million foreign-born individuals were considered legal permanent residents of this country. Another 11.5 million were estimated to have entered illegally. Of those, 8.4 million were from North America, 1.4 million from Asia, 1 million from South America, 500,000 from Europe and 300,000 from other places.
The number of persons visiting the United States for tourism and work-related matters continues to grow, particularly as the dollar has weakened against foreign currency, making a visit to this country cheaper than ever before. And, despite government efforts, the number of illegal aliens continues to rise each year.
What does this mean for U.S. law enforcement officers? While there are many aspects of this equation that impact police, one is undeniable: There is an increased likelihood of encountering individuals who speak only a foreign language.
Sizing up the problem is simple. The solution, however, especially for smaller law enforcement agencies, has historically been a difficult one. An agency with 10 or 20 or even 100 officers is lucky to find bilingual employees. And while the increasing Hispanic population makes it less difficult to hire an officer who speaks Spanish, how many agencies boast officers who speak Mandarin or Tagalog or Portuguese? Not very many. Even agencies that do have those capabilities don't necessarily have officers, trained in the less common foreign languages, accessible when an emergency strikes. Officers go on vacation, sleep and are stuck in court all day — they can't be available 24/7.
While the terrible tragedy involving the Polish-born Robert Dziekanski took place on Canadian soil, it is both absolutely possible and even likely that such an incident could happen in the United States.
But it doesn't have to happen that way.Bilingual officers and translator lists
Until recently, translation services in most departments revolved around using sworn officers on staff or a list of local residents fluent in a foreign language and willing to translate for the agency whenever needed. This is still a major model for many agencies.
States bordering Mexico or with large alien-resident communities such as Miami generally have a better crack at bilingual officers. But even departments in places like Wichita, Kansas — a place not typically associated with a language-diverse population — have an occasional need for translation.
According to Wichita's Web site, out of a population of over 334,000, more than 33,000 — or about 10 percent — of the city's population is Hispanic. The city further breaks down the Hispanic category into Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and others.
Wichita is also home to a significant Asian population — more than 13,000 people — comprised of individuals hailing from Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and others.
Gordon Bassham, assistant to the chief of the Wichita Police, says that the department does not often have language barriers, but most situations are handled by their bilingual officers. Although the department has no statistics available on how many of its 660 officers speak a language other than English, about 25 receive a pay differential for their multi-lingual skills.
"As Wichita continues to become more multicultural, we will likely see a need for officers and WPD employees who are multilingual," Bassham says. "However, while Wichita's growth rate is steady rather than booming, that need probably won't be a big one anytime soon."
Wichita occasionally offers staff language training. It also maintains a list of 37 community residents fluent in at least one of seven different languages: Spanish, Vietnamese, Laotian, French, Arabic, German and American Sign Language (ASL). However, this article does not deal with ASL. It is only noted since it is part of the Wichita statistics.
As with many U.S. jurisdictions, after English, Spanish is the most common language officers encounter. "Because many WPD officers and personnel speak Spanish, we rarely need to call upon Spanish-speaking individuals on that list," Bassham says.Factoring in the culture
There's probably an officer or records clerk on staff who took high school Spanish. Both can help make sense of elementary problems, but dealing with complex issues, as well as the cultural differences that crop up, make translating for emergency situations much more challenging.
Samantha Cardwell-Ward, who has produced a training program that teaches Spanish for law enforcement officers offered through Ward & Associates Professional Development in Round Rock, Texas, says she teaches officers how to reduce the emotional quotient when dealing with foreign cultures.
"[This] creates an environment so you can get information, most of all it's about calming, that's the focus," says Cardwell-Ward, a former prosecutor.
She says cultural mistakes escalate problems. "[In Hispanic cultures] last names are important, especially with women. Officers need to know how it works." Without this training, officers could mistakenly believe they are dealing with an alias or an illegal alien when they are simply looking at the information incorrectly.
Another mistake she sees is when children speak English and are asked to translate interviews with their parents. "This can be a really sensitive situation," Cardwell-Ward says.
Officers not familiar with Hispanic cultures often erroneously lump all populations into one group. What works for a Cuban-born immigrant might be culturally offensive to a Mexican or Puerto Rican, Cardwell-Ward explains.
Is this simply a problem for states that border Mexico and the Caribbean? Cardwell-Ward says no. "I'm seeing people caught off-guard. The Southwest has pretty much got [the language barrier] under control, but places like Washington state, Wisconsin and … in the North and East … are in a learning phase."In-service and online training
Any cop who has ever obtained a degree while working swing shifts, sitting in court waiting for cases to be called or chasing homicide investigations knows that going to school while on the job is tough. But a lot of departments have added basic language instruction into their training rotation.
Like Wichita, agencies can arrange for its officers to receive language and cultural training, sometimes through the local university or community college. Spanish for law enforcement officers is a frequent offering during in-service training.
For those who prefer self-directed study and some degree of fluency, an online course might be the ticket. D.J. Paxton, whose company Professional Learning Board in Minneapolis, Minnesota, creates custom online courses for clients, says these classes are designed for professionals whose schedules leave little free time.
"They can log in and do their coursework 24/7," Paxton says.
The tricky problem of pronunciation can be handled by students uploading audio files for instructors to review and give feedback. "Other options, like Web meetings, or some classroom training where he has a Spanish language instructor teaching him how to speak once a week, reinforced with cultural training online, also works," Paxton says. The mixture of the two types of instruction is known as "blended learning."
Of course, not every officer can, or wants, to take his or her language abilities to a higher level. And what can a department do when confronted with less common languages, such as Hindi, Swedish or Indonesian?
The good news is there is already a solution to this dilemma that even the smallest department can use, and it covers languages so obscure that most of Law Enforcement Technology's readers have probably never heard of them. And it all starts with a simple phone call.A call for help
Twenty-six years ago, a San Jose police officer realized his department not only was fielding more calls for service from Spanish-speaking subjects, but a growing number of Vietnamese were also settling in the area. Launched originally as a non-profit, Language Line Services (LLS) of Monterey, California, acted as a kind of go-between for clients who needed to communicate with individuals who did not speak English.
Louis Provenzano, LLS president and COO, says the company partners with 911 calls, police and emergency dispatchers. LLS provides access to 176 different languages.
The concept is simple. The officer notifies dispatch of the need for an interpreter. Dispatch calls the company on a special emergency telephone line and the officer hooks up with an interpreter.
"Some cities just let the officer dial directly — [we do] whatever the police want to do to make it easier." Provenzano says.
LLS's most requested U.S. language is Spanish. No surprise there, but the runners' up might make a few jaws drop: Mandarin is second, followed by Korean, Vietnamese and Cantonese. "We also get lots of requests for Polish and Portuguese," says Provenzano.
One fascinating byproduct of this service are the trends they indicate — in the Washington, D.C., area, for example, there is a growing need for Krio interpreters. Krio is the language spoken in Sierra-Leone.
Phoenix, Arizona, has a growing need for Dari, spoken in Iran. Oromo, a language used in Ethiopia and other African countries, is showing up in Seattle, Washington, while Denver, Colorado, has a demand for the Tibeto-Burman language of Karen, and in Chicago, Illinois, Urdu is spoken by many Pakistani immigrants. Some countries, like the Philippines, have numerous dialects. They present challenges, but thus far LLS has managed to meet them.
Handling some of those calls is Susan Avila, one of LLS's 4,000 translators. Some LLS staffers work in call centers, while others translate from their homes. Competition for Avila's job is fierce: The company only hires one out of every 12 applicants.
Avila, who works in Fort Worth, Texas, has been interpreting for 10 years. She says one of the most dramatic cases she assisted with involved a man who had been kidnapped and managed to get hold of a cell phone to call for help. As the police were searching for him, she was asked to instruct him to kick walls and make noise so officers could find him. They did — and also found and arrested his kidnappers.
"Of course not every call is that memorable," Avila says.
Commgap of Salt Lake City, Utah, is another company that works with law enforcement agencies and attorneys to facilitate interpretation over phone lines. Similar to LLS in structure, Commgap's Leilani Craig, executive director, says "We're a full translation agency and offer a whole round of language services. Part of our services are telephone interpreting on demand."
The dynamics are pretty simple, says Craig. The agency contacts Commgap and within 30 seconds they have an appropriate interpreter on the line. Commgap routinely records conversations they interpret and, says Craig, there is no minimum, no set-up charges and no binding contract.
"Agencies can use us as much, or as little, as they want," she says.Clear communication saves lives
Officers learn in the academy how to safely remove a driver and passengers during a felony stop. They are told to speak specifically, carefully and forcefully. One officer takes the lead and directs the action; this increases the chances of success. Dealing with individuals who do not speak English in the course of an emergency call can turn out to be a nightmare if a miscommunication takes place — like a felony stop that's not well-choreographed.
The government says that in 2002, the number of foreign-born persons in this country exceeded 33 million — more than the population of Canada. These days it's a sure bet that even the most rural of jurisdictions will deal with translation issues at some point. As any experienced officer can attest, such a call could involve a desperate criminal.
But it could just as easily be a frustrated Polish citizen trying to find his mother in a strange airport.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.