Multilingual Police in Immigrant Communities

One Possible Pathway to Improving Immigrant - Police Relations


What We Know

  • Preconceived notions create police-immigrant tensions in communities with large immigrant populations (2;3).
  • Immigrant communities more acutely feel the problems related to degraded police-community relations (3).
  • Increasing police officers’ multicultural understanding and multilingual skills can decrease misunderstandings in confrontations between immigrant communities and the judicial system (1;2;5).

Why This Matters

  • According to Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, police agencies that receive any amount of federal funding must overcome any language barriers they encounter (7).
  • Law enforcement officers and residents cooperate better when a community views police positively (2).
  • Chinese immigrants in San Francisco expressed a desire to see more bi- and multi-lingual police officers policing their communities (2).
  • Some urban programs created stronger ties between the municipal police forces and immigrant residents (1;2;5;6;7).

What We Need to Know

  • Some researchers wonder if education and training programs always create greater cultural understanding or if instead they simply reinforce the stereotypes law enforcement officers hold concerning immigrant communities (1). Implementing more programs period will help gauge the efficacy of these programs.
  • Research points to many causes for immigrant-police tensions (3). Training police officers for multilingual communities successfully remedies many issues, but some issues require highly contextualized and complex remedies specific to communities. Are the multilingual training programs the most effective method for improving immigrant-police relations?
  • Very few small, rural police departments practically implement multilingual and mutlicultural training programs because they do not have the same access to resources compared to larger, urban police departments. Broad rural implementation of such programs would undoubtedly provide a greater understanding of the efficacy of these programs.
  • The American judicial system on both a federal and state level is structurally prejudiced against anyone who does not speak English competently. Only three languages receive access to court-mandated interpreters: Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian-Creole (4). Would institutional reform within the judicial system also create stronger positive relations between police and immigrant communities?

Intended Audience

  • Elected officials
  • Public servants
  • Advocates
  • Law enforcement officers
  • Immigrant representatives

Sources and Further Reading

1.  Baskir, Cecily E. 2009. “Fostering Cultural Competence in Justice System ‘Gatekeepers’.” Judicature 92 (5): 232-237. Accessed November 10. 2014. Web of Science.
2.  Chu, Doris C., and Linda S.J. Hung. 2010. “Chinese Immigrants’ Attitudes Toward the Police in San Francisco.” Policing 33 (4): 621-643. Accessed November 10. 2014.
3.  Davies, Garth, and Jeffrey Fagan. 2012. “Crime and Enforcement in Immigrant Neighborhoods: Evidence from New York City.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 641: 99. Accessed November 10. 2014.
5. Procaccini, Daniel J.. “What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate: An Approach for Evaluating Credibility in America’s Multilingual Courtrooms.” Boston College Third World Law Journal 31, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 163-192. Accessed June 15, 2015. ProQuest Research Library.
4. Saint-Fort, Pradine, Noelle Yasso, and Susan Shah. 2012. “Engaging Police in Immigrant Communities: Promising Practices from the Field.” VERA Institute of Justice (October): 1- 76. Accessed November 10. 2014.
6. Shah, Susan, Insha Rahman, and Anita Khashu. 2007. “Overcoming Language Barriers: Solutions for Law Enforcement.” VERA Institute of Justice (October): 1-76. Accessed November 10. 2014. _final.pdf.
7.  Vidales, Guadalupe, Kristen M. Day, and Michael Powe. 2009. “Police and Immigration Enforcement: Impact on Latino(a) residents’ perceptions of police.” Policing 32 (4): 631-653. Accessed November 10. 2014.


Håkon Schonheyder, Mirwais Wakil, and Peder Tune