Opinion: NYPD’s ‘Backwards’ English-Only Policy

An El Diario-La Prensa editorial rails against the NYPD’s little-known English-only policy, which came to light this week after Lt. Richard Khalaf reprimanded officer Jessenia Guzman for responding briefly in Spanish to a fellow officer who had offered to get her some coffee.

(Photo by Ynkefan1, Flickr Creative Commons License)

(Photo by Ynkefan1, Flickr Creative Commons License)

“It was just natural,” she said, according to the NY Daily News. “She walked by. She was going to get coffee. She said something. I responded (in Spanish). That was it.” The reprimand will permanently remain on the record of the 13-year veteran of the police force. The National Latino Officers Association found eight other related cases, all involving Latinas.

The editorial takes particular issue with the mayor and police commissioner who support the policy.

What makes this worse is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly are defending this policy. Bloomberg argued that it is a “life and death” issue. Kelly said it could be “disconcerting” for a civilian to enter a police station and hear officers speaking a language other than English.

Bloomberg and Kelly distorted the situation and offered lame arguments. Guzman spoke only a few words in Spanish during no emergency. The defense of an absurd policy—which does not run across city agencies—makes no sense.

The rule could have what El Diario calls “a chilling effect” when it comes to the future of police officers who break the “backwards policy” – a policy that is ripe for abuse.

In a city with 2.4 million Latinos, the Department relies on Spanish-speaking officers for public safety and community relations. If a punishment looms for speaking another language on the job, how are officers supposed to navigate that?

Another consequence is the impact on promotions in the department. A blemish on a personnel file could prevent the ascent of those who would otherwise be considered for advancement. This not only affects Latinos, but also other officers who patrol one of the world’s most diverse cities.

The NYPD’s backwards policy invites abuse of power and discrimination. Bloomberg and Kelly must stop defending Khalaf and eliminate a rule that punishes officers for speaking another language. They must also remove the reprimand from Guzman’s record.

Echoing the sentiments of the editorial, mayoral candidates Bill de Blasio and John Liu also blasted the NYPD policy.

Public Advocate de Blasio underscores that the ability to speak one’s own language embodies the principles of the city.

“There is zero justification for the NYPD’s policy. For all my disagreements with the Mayor, I never thought I’d see something like this in New York City, let alone from a City agency. It’s wrongheaded and indefensible, and it has to stop this instant.

“No one at the NYPD or any City agency should ever face punishment for speaking their own language. This is who we are as a city. It’s what makes us great, and as public servants, it helps us serve all communities more fairly. To deny that violates our principles and violates the basic rights of our own people.”

Meanwhile, John Liu considers multilingual skills an asset to the police department.

“The NYPD should encourage – not penalize – multilingual capabilities among our Finest. Indeed the public would be better served with more police officers skilled in languages in addition to English. At the very least, officers should not be punished for speaking other languages when it does not interfere with their official duties or the chain of command.

“With the reputation of being the international capital of the world comes a responsibility on city government to ensure equal access to basic human services for all residents. New York City should not discriminate, neither by intent nor by effect, against New Yorkers based on language ability. English-only policies limit the full capacity of New York City’s most vital agencies – including the NYPD – that provide critical services 24/7 and upon which New Yorkers rely for on-demand and equal access.”

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