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Language Barriers in the Delivery of Police Services: A Study of Police and Hispanic Interactions in a Midwestern City

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 29 Issue: 4 Dated: July/August 2001 Pages: 329-340
Leigh Herbst; Samuel Walker
Kent B. Joscelyn
Date Published
August 2001
12 pages

This exploratory study examined the effect of language barriers on the delivery of police services to the Hispanic community through direct observation of police patrol and the police 911 communications center in a mid-western city.


There was evidence to support the hypotheses that the experience of Hispanic Americans with the criminal justice system and with the police in particular, was different than the experience of other minority groups. One recognized difference between Hispanics and other groups involved potential barriers to communication because of language. This study examined the extent to which language barriers involving Spanish-speaking citizens and English-speaking police officers affected police interactions with Hispanic citizens. It examined the frequency and effect of language barriers on the delivery of police services through direct observation of police patrol and a police 911 communications center in a mid-western city. A total of 137 police actions were observed. Ninety-eight of these involved officer-citizen contacts. The findings did not support the hypothesis that language barriers created serious problems in police interactions with Hispanic residents. Police officers generally handled potential language barrier interactions through “command Spanish,” which was learned through formal training or “street Spanish” learned through experience, or through the use of a family member or bystander as a translator. The absence of observed conflict between police and Hispanic citizens was supported by the interviews with police officers. In summary, the findings may not be generalizable to other sites. There may be different patterns of interaction between patrol officers and Hispanics in metropolitan areas with higher levels of recent immigration, higher levels of gang-related crime in Hispanic neighborhoods, or where police departments have a legacy of greater conflict with the Hispanic community. References