Language barrier presents problems for police in Va.

Hampton Roads deals with increasing number of non-English speakers

March 16, 2001|By Agnes Blum | Agnes Blum,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The Thanksgiving party at Pho 79, a Vietnamese noodle shop, crackled with the laughter of family and friends who sat drinking and sipping pho - Vietnam's signature minty, beef noodle soup.

The reverie ended when an argument between two men in the parking lot led to gunfire and the death of a 26-year-old man.

When Virginia Beach police officers arrived, they encountered the confusing din of an unfamiliar language inside the restaurant. Officers struggled to understand witnesses' accounts told in Vietnamese or broken English.

Lucky for them, officer Hanh Chau was available. He interviewed witnesses and provided English translations for the detectives - information critical to the arrest of a 19-year-old man.

Althought they are relatively unusual, incidents like the one at Pho 79 are expected to become more common in Hampton Roads as an increasing number of non-English speakers make their homes here, according to demographic experts.

Until now, police departments have relied on officers and a handful of citizens who speak foreign languages to volunteer. But the stop-gap approach does not properly anticipate the likely change in the population, advocates for immigrants claim.

Three recent robberies of Chinese restaurants in Virginia Beach underscore the problem: Police had trouble talking to the Vietnamese employees of one business.

Cultural barrier

Chau, who was born in Vietnam, said there is more to the barrier than language. He also draws on a shared culture.

"The body language, the tone of voice," Chau said. "It can be misunderstood by other detectives and officers. And some things have no direct translation."

For example, most Vietnamese people resist calling the police for anything short of a dire emergency, he said. They view the police less as an everyday resource and more as a last resort.

"Vietnamese seem to try and solve it on their own," Chau said. "Other citizens call the police for everything, like `My daughter refuses to go to school.' "

Police eventually charged Quoc Phuc Veo, 19, with the murder of Tho Phuoc Ly, 26., both of Virginia Beach.

"We would have been lost without Chau," said Sgt. Steve Fisher, who helped investigate the case.

Estimating the number of non-English speakers in Hampton Roads is difficult. According to the U.S. Census' 1999 estimates, about 36,000 Hispanics live in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach. That number reflects those who have settled down but not migrant workers. Another 42,000 people of Asian and Pacific island descent live in Hampton Roads, many of whom are Filipino, and about 10,000 of whom are Chinese.

Dispatchers in Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth keep lists of city employees and other citizens who speak languages other than English and are willing to interpret. A 24-hour telephone service provides translators fluent in everything from Arabic to Lithuanian.

View of critics

The service might sound impressive, but critics say telephone translators have severe limitations.

"That 1-800 number, that's cute if you're not in a life-and-death situation," said Jorge Sague, a member of the Norview Civic League and advocate for the Latino community. "But we need more trained people who speak other languages."

The problem is only going to become more pronounced as immigrant communities grow larger, Sague said.

Latinos are the fastest-growing population in Virginia, according to estimates of the 2000 U.S. Census. An additional 656,000 white, non-Hispanics are predicted to live in Virginia by 2025, but that represents only a 12 percent increase in the population. By contrast, the Hispanic population is expected to double, from 269,000 to 538,000, and the Asian community to swell by 94 percent, from 267,000 to 519,000 over the same period, according to the U.S. Census.

Not everyone feels the government is obligated to adapt to immigrants who don't speak English. English-only movements have sprung up around the country. Some laws make English the official language, while others bar governments from offering services in other languages. Virginia is one of 16 states that has an English-only law. In 1996, English was designated Virginia's official language.

Delegates recently killed a bill intended to make criminal defendants pay for their interpreters if found guilty in court.

Treating immigrants as unwelcome interlopers who should pay for services scares them from getting involved with the government, advocates say. As a result, they can seem invisible.

"It's not very common to come across people who don't speak English," said Glen T. Davies, who has been on the Norfolk police force for five years. "It's more common to come across someone who's deaf."

Most immigrants avoid the police at all costs, said Theresa Martinez, a lawyer in Northern Virginia who follows issues affecting the Hispanic community.

"A lot of Latinos come from a country where the police are an arm of the death squad," Martinez said.

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