Commission on Human Rights finds NYPD discriminated against Make the Road NY’s Spanish-speaking members

Photo courtesy of Make the Road NY

New York City’s Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) found probable cause to back Make the Road New York’s complaints alleging the NYPD “engaged in unlawful discriminatory practice of denying” full and equal access of their services and by “making their patronage feel unwelcome because of their national origin.”

The CCHR made the determination after almost three years of investigating the case.

Make the Road NY (MRNY), the largest progressive grassroots immigrant-led organization in the state, and four of its members filed a complaint with the CCHR after what they say is a pattern of denying foreign language interpretation services to limited-English-proficient New Yorkers — particularly in Queens’ 108th, 110th and 115th precincts.

The nonprofit noted the complaints are in direct violation of the city’s Language Access Executive Order 120, New York City Human Rights Law directing agencies that provide public services to offer language assistance, and the NYPD’s own policy as outlined on their Patrol Guide.

When asked for comment regarding the CCHR’s determination as well as more information about the case, an NYPD spokesperson declined to comment.

“We decline comment as the matter is in ongoing litigation,” they wrote in an email.

‘We’ve heard stories from members for years’

For years, community members have looked to MRNY for assistance after they couldn’t receive help from the NYPD.

“We’ve been hearing stories from our members for years, who’ve attempted to get services from the NYPD, whether it’s for domestic violence or assault,” said Estee Ward, one of the lead attorneys in MRNY’s case.

There have been many accounts by various members of the community regarding a lack of language interpretation from the NYPD.

In 2016, Iris Vega, a dancer at Jackson Height’s Gato Verde Sports Bar at the time, claimed she was attacked and physically assaulted by her manager. According to MRNY’s case filing, Vega called 911 and asked, in Spanish, to send someone who spoke Spanish.

Vega was immediately fired by the owner after another manager called to tell them she got police involved. The manager who assaulted her left the establishment before the police arrived. When she began to tell officers what happened, they said they didn’t speak Spanish and signaled to her that they’d return. Another set of police officers arrived, who also didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t offer interpretation, according to Vega’s statement in MRNY’s complaint.

The other manager approached the officers and started speaking to them in English, but Vega didn’t understand what was said. A stranger offered to help translate but left after the manager said they weren’t there to witness what happened. Police told Vega to go to the 115th Precinct the following day, as detailed in MRNY’s case filing.

At the 115th, they told her the case was actually assigned to the 110th Precinct. When she went to the 110th Precinct to ask what was going on with her case in Spanish, she was spoken to in English by an officer and wasn’t offered an interpreter, according to MRNY’s case filing.

110th Precinct located at 94-41 43rd Ave. in Elmhurst. (Photo by Jeremy Walsh)

Days after, she heard the manager who assaulted her was back at the sports bar, so she called 911. Officers arrested the man when Vega identified him, and told Vega they would follow up with her regarding the case, according to Vega’s statement in MRNY’s complaint.

What ensued after that were days that turned into weeks of back and forth between the Queens County Criminal Court and the precinct. An investigator at the precinct suggested she get an Order of Protection, but the court said she couldn’t because there were no charges against her manager, according to MRNY’s case filing.

On several occasions when Vega tried to follow up over the phone with the precinct, she was told “no Spanish,” as stated in MRNY’s complaint.

It was only after Vega sought out help from English-speaking MRNY representatives that she was able to receive some answers and an Order of Protection, three months after she was assaulted. But the emotional toll remained, as Vega lived nearby Gato Verde and feared for her family’s safety, according to Vega’s statement in MRNY’s complaint.

‘An unprecedented number of cases’

Incidents of language barriers with the NYPD are even more pronounced within the LGBTQ+ community.

“In Jackson Heights, there’s been an unprecedented number of those cases. We’ve seen time and time again how police just aggravate the victims,” Ward said.

Victor Sanchez, 37, and his partner were renting a room in Elmhurst in 2016, when Sanchez told QNS he experienced a homophobic assault. It all began when the woman who they were renting a room from told Sanchez that her brother would be staying in their living room because he was “heading down the wrong path.”

Elmhurst resident Victor Sanchez, 37. (Photo courtesy of Make the Road NY)

One night in December 2016, when Sanchez, who is trans, returned from a party in his attire, their landlord’s brother went to tell his sister, “The guys are letting f—— in,” in Spanish. Their landlord then went over to ask Sanchez if there were people in the room with him, but Sanchez told her there was no one there except him, as his partner worked overnight, Sanchez told QNS.

The following day, their landlord asked why Sanchez didn’t tell her he and his partner were a couple. Sanchez told QNS he thought, being that they were renting one room together, that it was implied.

Ever since that night though, the landlord’s brother would throw comments like, “We can’t go in the kitchen” when Sanchez and his partner would cook meals, or “The girls are cooking,” Sanchez said.

In January 2017, words became actions. For the first time, Sanchez said their landlord’s brother called him a derogatory word to his face while he was trying to cook a meal.

“I told him to respect me, but he came up to me aggressively and told me, ‘I’ll make you a man,’ and to go out to the street to fight,” Sanchez said in Spanish, adding that he responded, “No, I’m not an animal.”

When Sanchez tried to grab his phone to record, the landlord’s brother smacked the phone so that it landed on the floor. He then punched Sanchez on the side of his eyebrow and then his nose, causing Sanchez to hit the floor. The man then kicked Sanchez two or three times with construction boots, according to Sanchez’s statement in MRNY’s complaint.

Sanchez’s partner then came from the room and tried to get the man off of him after hearing one of the landlord’s kids scream. Sanchez’s partner was able to push the landlord’s brother away from him and began recording on his phone, but the landlord’s brother retreated into his sister’s room, Sanchez told QNS.

Sanchez then called 911 and agreed to have an ambulance go to their location so he’d get medical assistance. Five minutes later, police knocked on the front door. Sanchez allegedly heard the landlord’s brother tell his sister to cry so they can tell them Sanchez hit her instead.

The three police officers only spoke English, and told Sanchez and his partner to stay in their rooms to wait for an interpreter. Officers also took photos of Sanchez’s wounds. An officer who spoke Spanish and the ambulance arrived at the same time, so Sanchez only had time to tell the officer that the brother hit him repeatedly, Sanchez told QNS.

The ambulance then took him to Elmhurst Hospital, but police didn’t go see him there to get his full account. A social worker at the hospital advised Sanchez to go to the 110th Precinct to file a police report and get an Order of Protection, according to MRNY’s complaint.

Around midnight that day, Sanchez and his partner went to the precinct but were immediately told by an officer wearing a white shirt to speak English because there was no interpretation — Sanchez and his partner don’t speak English but could understand the statement, according to MRNY’s case filing.

They managed to receive some help translating by a stranger who was there filing a police report, Sanchez told QNS. While there, officers said they already had reports from his landlord about what happened.

“I insisted that I never told my version of what happened,” Sanchez said, pointing to his note from the hospital directing him to the precinct.

Sanchez said the officer who met them at the house earlier that day asked to speak with him outside, where the officer told him they already had statements from their landlord that Sanchez pushed her and that they didn’t have time to take his side of the story. But Sanchez wanted to report his side in case the landlord’s brother assaulted him again, he told QNS.

Following that day, Sanchez and his partner only returned to their rented room to sleep, while using a friend’s place to shower and eat. They moved from there after a few weeks to a place where they paid more rent, but didn’t feel safe, he told QNS.

Sanchez then sought out MRNY’s services after two months of the assault, where he was able to return to the precinct with representatives of the organization. But while there, police said they’d have to arrest all three parties in order to report a full account of the assault from all sides, according to MRNY’s case filing.

“I was scared and nervous and asked why I had to be arrested when I was the one who was attacked,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “I told them that was unfair, and they said to just write down a general report, nothing specific, of what happened. It was my only option and it was the one I took.”

Sanchez said it was thanks to Bianey Garcia, one of the lead organizers at MRNY’s Trans Immigrant Project (TrIP), that he was able to receive helpful services from MRNY — which included negotiating his hospital bills to be lowered and receiving therapy.

“They helped me a lot. In the talks, I could let off steam and I was free to say everything. It was very nice,” he said.

Sanchez, who is still suffering trauma from the assault, said that although he’s found help from MRNY, it’s a complicated feeling to come to terms with.

“I had this idea that I’ll come to this country and receive the respect I didn’t get in my country … but the insults and assaults toward us minorities and LGBT community members are still muy dañino [very damaging],” he said.

Bianey Garcia, organizer at Make the Road NY’s Trans Immigrant Project. (Photo: Mark Hallum/QNS)

Garcia told QNS Sanchez’s incident “is not isolated for a person who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Garcia, who’s worked at MRNY since 2012 advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, was one of the members who submitted statements for the CCHR case.

In her 2017 statement, she said she’s accompanied MRNY members as well as other members of the Queens community, often transgender and cis-gender women who are survivors of domestic violence, to different precincts to report their incidents at least 15 times in the previous two years.

Garcia said she’s witnessed language barriers at different precincts in almost every occasion.

“It’s always the same. The way they treat you, they intimidate you, they use words to make you feel less than because of your gender identity,” Garcia said in Spanish. “They do not offer you the services you need. If we ask for Spanish, they say there is nobody to do it and they tell you to come back. Seeing a person who is hurt, they do not offer help.”

Garcia said there are many cases that “aren’t being reported as a result.”

According to the NYPD’s Patrol Guide, they are required to offer free interpretation services to people with limited English. The guide states they must “Ensure language assistance services (e.g. Language Line telephonic interpreter, certified member of the service, etc.) as outlined in Patrol Guide 212-90, ‘Guidelines for Interaction with Limited English Proficient (LEP) Persons’ are available to limited or non-English speakers, as appropriate.”

“After this, I would like them to have more respect for people’s lives,” Garcia said about CCHR’s probable cause finding. “When a person is there, don’t make them wait eight hours. Provide your services, no matter their race or gender. It is a human right. Don’t tease us, because we are not clowns. We are human beings.”

What happens next

Now that the CCHR determined probable cause in MRNY’s complaint of the NYPD’s lack of language interpretation, the case will move on to a public hearing and adjudication.

A CCHR spokesperson said that at any moment of their investigation, each party can look to resolve the matter with a Conciliation Agreement. The spokesperson said that in most cases, the parties settle.

They added that the CCHR treats city agencies “the exact same way” they would other organizations or individuals throughout their investigation and judge rulings.

CCHR’s determination comes amid months of national protests against police brutality, calls for systemic change in policing, as well as demands for transparency from the police and their disciplinary action records.

MRNY’s lawyers believe CCHR’s probable cause finding is a victory and a critical step toward resolving the NYPD’s previous negligence toward language access.

“They have protocols and guidance in place,” Ward said. “It’s not perfect, but all we’re asking is that they follow it. We’ve been open and even eager to have conversations with the NYPD about how they can ensure their language access plans are executed by police and staff, but, for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to.”