Honolulu police receive hundreds of requests for language interpreters each year, but few are for Pacific Islanders despite the fact that they comprise a disproportionate number of those arrested and often speak English as a second language or not at all.

The discrepancy has raised concerns that the police need to improve communication with marginalized communities amid rising tensions over the disparities and recent fatal police shootings.

City Councilwoman Andria Tupola said HPD should create a language access unit to address the problem, although no concrete initiatives have been put forward. She also wants HPD’s annual report to include how many officers speak the language, understand the culture and the number of requests for language assistance.

Honolulu City Council member Andria Tupola speaks during council meeting held at Honolulu Hale.
Honolulu City Council member Andria Tupola speaks during a council meeting held at Honolulu Hale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The problem is complicated. While there have been claims that the police refused requests for language assistance, advocates say non-English speakers often don’t know they have a right to ask or are too afraid to speak up.

Data shows that the Honolulu Police Department only provided language interpreters for three Micronesians last year. Meanwhile, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders represented 38.1% of total arrests and 34.5% of use of force incidents in 2019. The department doesn’t provide specific figures for Micronesians.

“It’s not just the language per se,” Tupola said. “It’s the whole entire thing, which is understanding the family structure, the culture, why this particular family would choose to do this thing rather than that thing and why they’re mad about their son getting arrested.”

Growing Need

The most common requests for language interpreters by patrol officers are Japanese, Mandarin and Korean, according to HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu.

“On average, there is one or less than one call a year for Burmese, Chuukese, Croatian, French, Ilocano, Italian, Laotian, Marshallese, Pohnpeian, Portuguese, Russian, Taiwanese, Samoan and Somali translation,” Yu said in an email.

“In 2018 and 2019, translation services were requested approximately 250 and 500 times, respectively,” she added. “Fewer than 200 requests were made in 2020, and there have been fewer than 100 requests so far this year.”

The Honolulu Police Department doesn’t have a corps of full-time interpreters but instead relies on 236 officers and civilian employees – both full-time and part-time – who speak a second language and may be called on to help with interpretation. According to its policy, HPD compiles an annual list of such employees.

“Sometimes the wrong person is arrested because they have limited English, and they can’t tell their side of the story.” — Suzanne Zeng of Language Services Hawaii

A majority of HPD employees fluent in second languages speak Japanese, Spanish, Ilocano and Tagalog.

Thirty-four speak a Pacific Islander language, including 15 who speak Samoan, nine who speak Hawaiian, five who speak Tongan and one who speaks Fijian. Only four speak Micronesian languages: one Chuukese, one Palauan and two Pohnpeian.

Josie Howard, program director of We Are Oceania, a Micronesian advocacy group, said she was stunned at the low numbers of language interpretation requests by people from the Federated States of Micronesia, which has an agreement with the United States that allows its people to legally live and work in the country in exchange for U.S. military control over a huge swath of the western Pacific.

“I was looking for Chuukese in the higher up, and I couldn’t believe that it was in the bottom,” she said.

Howard figured the issue might be that some Micronesians are unaware that they can ask for a language interpreter.

The Honolulu police have initiated efforts to improve outreach to the community following the April 5 shooting death of Iremamber Sykap, a 16-year-old Micronesian who had been driving an allegedly stolen car involved in a car chase. Three officers involved in the shooting face murder charges.

Acting Honolulu Police Chief Rade Vanic speaks to media.
Interim Honolulu Police Chief Rade Vanic has acknowledged the need for more language assistance, adding that HPD is searching for grants to help pay interpreters. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Interim Police Chief Rade Vanic recognized there’s a need for language assistance at a Honolulu Police Commission meeting last week, noting that HPD met with We Are Oceania on July 8 to address the concerns. He added that the department is searching for grants to help pay interpreters.

“We realize it continues to be a challenge,” Vanic said.

A Right To Language Access

Recently, Paulina Perman worked with a Pohnpeian client who she said wasn’t provided a language interpreter by HPD during a traffic stop and was unaware that he could ask for one.

A Pohnpeian interpreter for 10 years, Perman said a cultural barrier might be the reason for the small number of requests for Micronesian interpreters.

She emphasized that it’s disrespectful in her culture to speak up against the police, so often suspects will remain silent.

“When you’re confronted by a cop, and you don’t know what you’ve done wrong to begin with, you’re put in a place where you’re already nervous,” Perman said. “If you’re confronted by a cop, and you have a language barrier, how are you supposed to act in a way when you feel like you’ll be misunderstood?”

She also said that cultural awareness by the HPD could help de-escalate a situation.

Her boss Suzanne Zeng, the founder and president of Language Services Hawaii, agrees. The most pressing need in Oahu courtrooms is for Chuukese, the main language of the Micronesian island of Chuuk, Zeng said, adding that she gets an average of 10 to 20 requests each day.

Forty-seven percent of interpreted cases in Oahu’s courtrooms are for Chuukese, according to statistics from the judiciary.

Zeng, who provides interpretation in Mandarin, said she has seen hundreds of cases — DUIs, car accidents, domestic violence and prostitution where the defendants were never offered an interpreter by the police department.

“I don’t know if there’s an underlying bias toward suspects, and therefore the police may be unwilling to get an interpreter,” Zeng said. “Sometimes the wrong person is arrested because they have limited English, and they can’t tell their side of the story.”

Zeng, who served on the state Office of Language Access’s advisory board for seven years, said the HPD technically isn’t required to follow the state’s language access law because it’s governed at the city level.

But HPD’s policy states that the department will follow Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which ensures that agencies do not discriminate against non-English speakers and provide language assistance.

Zeng said she has had many defendants who said the police didn’t provide an interpreter. She also said she translated a police report a few years ago that showed an officer used a 13-year-old girl to translate during a robbery investigation.

HPD’s policy says officers aren’t supposed to use minors as interpreters, although they may use other bystanders, family, friends or an electronic translator.

Deputy Public Defender Jerry Villanueva also was surprised at the low number of requests for Micronesian language interpreters because he said most of his clients specifically ask for assistance in Chuukese.

“How are you telling them that they can request an interpreter if the person doesn’t speak English?” Villanueva said. 

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