EAST HAMPTON, NY — An immigrant advocacy group is demanding answers about why it’s taken East Hampton Police almost four years to give the green light for cell phones in patrol cars that they said would allow access to immediate, live interpretation for non-English proficient residents and visitors.
Minerva Perez, who took the helm as executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, or OLA, in February, 2016, said she began meeting right away with law enforcement leadership to better understand how documented and not-yet-documented residents would have access to “protection and safety” when they were victims of or witnesses to a crime.
Perez said she learned from police chiefs and officers that it was highly unlikely an officer responding to a call where the victim or witness was not proficient in English would be able to communicate fully at the site of the incident.
A live interpretation service “Language Line,” used by hospitals and other police departments, was being used in the police dispatch center for all 911 calls and was accessible to officers — as long as they had a cell phone to call the number, she said.
Officers, however, did not have work cells, and it was not considered advisable to ask officers to use their personal cell phones because police business should remain separate, she said.
OLA began talks with Southampton and East Hampton police departments in 2016, offering to pay for cell phones to be placed in every patrol car, which would help officers communicate with those connected to the incident and also of developing trust with Spanish-speaking community, Perez said.
“This communication would also allow non-Spanish speaking officers the ability to connect with all sectors of their patrol area. The EHTPD, along with most East End police forces, has a very small number of officers fluent in Spanish,” she said.
Within two years, the Southampton Town Police Department accepted OLA’s offer to provide the funds needed to purchase 15 iPhone 7s so that they could access the Language Line, she said.
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki crafted a comprehensive policy regarding the use of the cell phones, “and since then, officers and union representatives have thanked OLA for allowing the police this additional tool that streamlines interactions and allows officers full access to their training in order to learn the critical and often nuanced details of a crime,” Perez said.
She added: “For victims and witnesses, Language Line allows them to be able to speak in the language in which they can express themselves most clearly, ensuring that they are not forced to rely on a second language during a crisis at the risk of being completely misunderstood. It is proven that in times of crisis, our native language is the first and sometimes only language that comes to us.”
Also critical, she said, is that communication is available the moment the officer arrives at the scene.
It is not adequate to make an officer reach out to a supervisor to wait for a cell phone to be driven to them at any time of the day or evening, Perez said, adding that the current practice “antiquated” and puts added pressure on the officer while not properly serving the victim or witness.
Perez wants to know why East Hampton Police Chief Michael Sarlo has not responded in almost four years; almost four years ago, Perez said, he told her he thought the idea was doable.
“While he has never said ‘no,’ repeated requests to move this very simple solution into practice have led to nothing,” she said. “Every day officers have to face uncertainty and danger and are not afforded this basic communication tool that could develop the very trust we need in this small community. This remains startling to me.”
OLA stands ready to cover the costs of buying iPhones for every patrol car in East Hampton Town as soon as they get the word, she said.
Sarlo told Patch he forwarded the request to the East Hampton town board, after stating that “yes, it could work and be helpful. However we were concerned about some issues with discovery, as well as changes to the admissibility of language line translation in court proceedings,” he said.
He added: “We currently have patrol sergeants with department phones at the ready to respond to assist in any situation where an officer feels the need for translation; and in all ‘cases’ investigated, we ensure an officer is available to translate or use language line for initial translation at one of our facilities.”
Sarlo said police have not had complaints about officers’ lack of ability to gain translation services.
“I let the board know in the fall that we would be willing to accept the phones, so long as they approve the additional funding for the service contracts and fees after the donation,” he said.
Sarlo added: “I am not sure why this was released as a press release when I have not heard from Minerva directly in over nine months. We participated on a Zoom a few weeks ago and she mentioned it on air, but never called me back. I am always available.”
And, Sarlo said: “We work very hard to be open and inclusive, and while I understand the frustration with the delay, there must have been some misunderstanding as to why I was never asked about the phones again. As well as dealing with managing the COVID 19 state of emergency over the past four months, I have been spread quite thin.”
Perez, who served for six years as director of The Retreat’s, a 24-hour domestic violence shelter, said she is “acutely aware” of the critical role law enforcement plays in linking victims of domestic violence to safety.
“Trust and communication save lives – including officers’ lives,” she said.
During the summer months, the East End triples in size, Perez said, and officers should be ready to communicate with visitors who speak many languages.
East End communities need police officers to be fully equipped to communicate effectively and accurately with speakers of other languages, she said, “not to remain stuck in frustrating conversations full of misunderstandings that can lead to inaccurate police reports and faulty handling of situations at the scene.”