Anticipating that it would soon be subjected to an unprecedented number of court-mandated reforms, the New Orleans Police Department in 2011 launched a program meant to improve the way the force serves Hispanic and Vietnamese residents who don’t speak English.
Since then, the two officers running the “El Protector” program have handled everything from interpreting during conversations with suspects and witnesses to teaching classes for Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking residents about what cops are and aren’t supposed to do.
The goal: getting members of two of the city’s most sizable minority populations to trust the NOPD enough to report crimes and ask for help when needed.
Soon, though, El Protector will be no more — a casualty of the new NOPD deployment strategy meant to reduce high response times by getting more cops on the streets, the department confirmed last week.
The four-person, headquarters-based Crime Prevention Unit to which El Protector officers Janssen Valencia and Stephen Nguyen belong is being disbanded so that its members can instead respond to calls for service in one of the city’s eight police districts after the Carnival season ends Feb. 9.
They will be among 94 cops being similarly reassigned as the department tries to reduce an average crime-scene response time that has skyrocketed over the past five years as police manpower dwindled sharply.
The looming switch is proving unpopular with a number of groups who fear the NOPD is stepping away from fulfilling the 2012 federal consent decree’s promise of closer cooperation between the agency and the people it is sworn to defend, especially the estimated 20,000 Hispanics and 6,700 Vietnamese who live in the city — nearly half of whom have difficulty speaking English, according to U.S. Census figures.
On the other hand, the change highlights the tensions NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison must navigate between satisfying the historic, sweeping consent decree and trying to ensure that cops can get to 90 percent of emergency calls within seven minutes, instead of within more than a half-hour, as was the cast in the last three months of 2015.
While emphasizing that Harrison is simply trying to make the city more secure, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble last week denied that the department is abandoning its obligation to non-English-speaking residents.
He said the City Council in December approved a plan to give 5 percent pay raises to officers who earn certification as translators, an idea meant to increase the number of bilingual cops on the force. About a dozen officers have expressed interest in the work, Gamble said.
He also said New Orleans’ 911 call-answering center provides translation services and was able to assist on 818 calls — 0.2 percent of the overall total — that required an interpreter last year.
Making a ‘hard decision’
In a meeting with The New Orleans Advocate’s editorial board, Harrison said that — at least until the NOPD swells its ranks again — no officers will have full-time community policing positions like the ones held by Valencia, Nguyen and their fellow Crime Prevention Unit officers, Debra Cook and Clarence Cornelius, who have handled more standard, English-language, grass-roots outreach efforts.
Gamble, without elaborating, added Friday that the department intends to adopt a strategy that will eventually make every NOPD cop “a quality of life officer.” Until then, he said, it will team up with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office to maintain a presence at community meetings across town.
“This is the hard decision that needs to be made to satisfy the public safety question,” Harrison said earlier this month, noting that the number of NOPD officers had plummeted from roughly 1,500 in 2010 to 1,163. “The people and their lives and safety are always the most important. Everything falls second or further to the lives and safety of people.”
Despite the assurances, proponents of El Protector are skeptical.
“The community feels like: Why can’t we have both?” said Minh Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans. “We could have bilingual responders and the Crime Prevention Unit. Why do we have to have one or the other?”
The NOPD didn’t begin focusing on bridging whatever gaps existed with non-English-speaking residents until 2009. That’s when Superintendent Warren Riley first assigned former traffic cop Valencia to double as a public information officer and a Hispanic community liaison, out of recognition that the city’s Spanish-speaking population had boomed after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 created a substantial need for construction laborers.
Two years later, Riley’s successor, Superintendent Ronal Serpas, implemented the full-fledged El Protector program, which he had employed earlier while he was police chief in Nashville, Tennessee.
The program arrived in New Orleans about the time Justice Department investigators reported they had seen an NOPD officer wait 30 minutes to respond to a domestic violence call because no translator was immediately available. The officer eventually went to the scene only because one of the federal investigators riding in the patrol car happened to speak Spanish.
In that same 2011 report, another person complained that Vietnamese shooting victims occasionally had no one to identify their attackers to, even if they wanted to cooperate.
Ultimately, the watchdogs determined the NOPD was “dangerously limited in its capacity to communicate” with residents who don’t speak English, endangering lives and in effect discriminating on the basis of national origin.
Losing a head start?
Even though the NOPD has spent the past four years under a 492-point consent decree, it wasn’t until October that the department obtained the Spanish- and Vietnamese-language complaint forms it is required to provide in headquarters and district stations, the city said in a Jan. 6 court filing.
Given all that, Louisiana Language Access Coalition Co-Chairwomen Daesy Behrhorst and Karla Sikaffy duPlantier recently sent a letter to Landrieu’s office urging the city to salvage El Protector.
They said El Protector has given Valencia and Nguyen a head start in forming a rapport with those Vietnamese and Hispanic residents spotlighted as vulnerable in the federal report from years ago, and their success shouldn’t be diminished.
The program has empowered the officers — considered on-call translators — to respond to the “needs of non-English speakers” interacting with police “as they (arose) ... regardless of district,” thus checking off one of the consent decree’s main community engagement aspects, Behrhorst and duPlantier said.
In addition, Valencia and Nguyen have been burnishing the NOPD’s image in those communities by delivering gang-resistance talks to schoolchildren and teaching residents about how to buy a car legally, how officers are bound by jurisdictional boundaries and how local law enforcement agencies aren’t supposed to investigate the immigration status of a crime victim or witness.
Putting the two officers to work responding to calls “will no longer allow for them to address the community where they are desperately needed,” the letter said.
The Latino Forum of New Orleans, an advocacy group, has suggested it would be difficult for other officers to take on aspects of Valencia’s job while their primary assignment was being on patrol in a district.
Since the start of 2015, NOPD officers all across the city have been calling Valencia out to assist with translating about once every three days. He’s also taught at least three sets of NOPD recruits a Spanish course in which they learn how to say basic things like, “What’s your name? Who does this car belong to? Your license and registration, please.”
Further, Valencia — a 19-year veteran who was born in New York but grew up in Colombia — has appeared on Spanish-language media to relay information from authorities during times of emergency, such as Hurricane Isaac.
How to ‘protect and serve’?
Mary, Queen of Vietnam Parish coordinator Anthony Tran said he fears the potential fallout from the two officers’ shift for his church, which celebrates the Mass in Vietnamese, English and Spanish.
Through mid-August last year, the 7th District, which covers most of New Orleans East, claimed the unfortunate distinction of having the longest average response time in the city: two hours, 27 minutes.
While Harrison’s redeployment plan is meant to curb such long delays, Tran worries it will shut off crime victims with limited English who struggle to communicate their problems to dispatchers.
Tran knows both Valencia and Nguyen well. When parishioners with limited English need help, he said, they often reach out to the two officers directly on their cellphones.
“They get more help that way, because they can express in Vietnamese or Spanish,” Tran said. “That’s understandable, a normal human reaction.”
Tran’s hope now is that after Carnival ends, both officers will be assigned to New Orleans East.
Others, however, haven’t given up on keeping Valencia and Nguyen in their current positions.
In a written statement sent to Harrison, Committee for a Better New Orleans President Keith Twitchell applauded the chief for seeking ways to boost the number of police on the streets — but he said doing it at the expense of El Protector will not make the city safer.
“The police motto is protect and serve,” Twitchell said. “‘El Protector’ — Spanish for ‘The Protector’ — is absolutely critical to achieving this objective.”