A recent audit conducted by the city's Independent Police Review (IPR) has found that Portland police lack a clear, consistent, and legally-sound system for communicating with Portlanders who don't speak English.
The audit, made public last week, points to a gap in the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) stated commitment to equity that's been acknowledged—but not addressed—by city leaders and the federal government for years.
According to IPR, the audit was motivated by numerous complaints and comments received from members of the public regarding clunky, if not incomprehensible, interactions with PPB officers. Some told IPR investigators that an officer had denied them an interpreter when requested, others pointed to officers' over-reliance on the family members of a non-English speaking person to interpret officers' questions, and others said that poor translation led to members of the public misunderstanding their legal rights—at times unintentionally giving an officer consent to search their property.
"While the interactions described in these complaints did not always violate [PPB] policy, public safety agencies are obligated to provide meaningful language access services and ensure community members have the ability to communicate effectively and be understood," the audit reads.
Through their research, IPR investigators found that PPB's few bilingual officers are often dispatched to help other officers communicate with non-English speaking Portlanders, but only if they're available at the time. Even if they are available, those officers may not have the skills needed to accurately translate technical and legal concepts. As IPR notes, PPB's bilingual officers are not legally certified translators or interpreters and are not financially compensated for their translation services.
Recent US Census data finds that 8 percent of Portlanders say they are not proficient in speaking English—meaning nearly 50,000 residents could be negatively impacted by PPB's current standards. These outdated policies not only discriminate against immigrants and people of color, but disproportionately impacts Portland communities who request the most police assistance, IPR found. According to the audit's analysis, the neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of people who are not fluent in English are in East Portland. These neighborhoods are also where officers receive the most 911 calls.
PPB policy states that officers are responsible for determining whether someone needs translation services to “access and/or understand important rights, obligations and services that have a nexus to the contact.”
IPR investigators find this phrasing problematic.
"This standard is arbitrary as there are no unimportant rights, obligations, and services when it comes to the provision of public safety," the audit reads. "It should not be left to an officer’s discretion to determine a community member’s language proficiency."
The audit suggests that PPB update its policy to reflect federal standards, which require law enforcement officers "provide meaningful and equitable access to services so that outcomes are the same as for English-speaking communities."
This isn't the first time PPB has been urged to adhere to this rule. In 2016, the US Department of Justice's Office for Civil Rights also analyzed PPB's language services and recommended the same policy change, among other tweaks.
"Many of the gaps identified by the Office for Civil Rights in 2016 are still present in current bureau policy," the IPR audit reads. The report also points to another government mandate to update this policy: In November 2020, the Portland City Council directed all city bureaus to implement new citywide standards regarding language access—some that go beyond federal requirements.
The audit recommends PPB prohibit family members or other "informal" translators from interpreting for someone during a police interaction, unless it is an emergency, and urges the bureau to create clear guidance on when officers should rely on professional translators (often via a telephone call) over bilingual officers. IPR suggests PPB create an online portal to help translate documents regarding constitutional rights and criminal citations for members of the public.
In a response letter, PPB Chief Chuck Lovell said that while he agrees with many of the audit's recommendations "in concept," they may be impossible to carry out given the limitations of the bureau's budget. In several cases, Lovell suggests the city or county take responsibility for translating documents online—not the police department itself.
"While we greatly desire inclusive and widespread language access, we are challenged with some of the logistical issues involved as well as the significant costs associated with providing translation services," Lovell writes.