City officials call on LAPD to hire more multilingual emergency dispatchers

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Amid significant vacancies in the Los Angeles Police Department, city officials are raising concerns over the department’s ability to serve non-English-speaking communities in emergency situations.

Dispatchers who handle 911 calls, also known as police service representatives, received 2.2 million calls between January and September of 2023. More than 5,000 of those calls came from individuals speaking a language other than English or Spanish. It can take up to 45 seconds to get an interpreter on the line, according LAPD Capt. Raymond Valois.

With 180 vacant dispatcher positions, the City Council is requesting that the LAPD give priority to filling the slots with people who speak more than one language, with an emphasis on the 10 most commonly spoken languages in the city.

A motion introduced by Councilmember Monica Rodriguez and approved by the council Tuesday asks for a report on the resources needed to communicate with non-English speakers and calls on LAPD to recruit more multilingual dispatchers.

Currently, non-English speakers are directed to wait in a queue for a translator when there’s no one readily available to assist them in their language, Rodriguez said. Additional resources are imperative to maintain the trust of non-English-speaking communities, she added.

“We want to make sure that everyone has trust in the system, and that when they call that there’s someone that can actually understand what they’re communicating and is responsive to their needs,” Rodriguez said.

The dispatcher vacancies contribute to the challenge of serving the diverse communities of L.A., Rodriguez said.

“We have a deficiency in terms of available [dispatchers] that have the ability to address all the language needs in the city,” she said.

According to Valois, the LAPD contracts with the translation and interpretation services company CyraCom International to provide an interpreter for non-English and non-Spanish 911 calls. When a dispatcher receives a call from a non-English speaker, they contact CyraCom and an interpreter joins the call.

Among the 5,181 emergency calls involving CyraCom between January and September 2023, the most frequently spoken languages were Korean, Russian and Mandarin.

For non-emergencies, dispatchers may dial Homeland Language Services, another translation service agency. Spanish-speaking callers are directed to a certified Spanish-speaking dispatcher.

According to U.S. census data collected between 2018 and 2022, 57% of Angelenos ages 5 or older live in households where a language other than English is spoken at home. Census data from 2021 show that roughly a quarter of Angelenos speak English less than “very well.”

LAPD was unable to provide the number of bilingual or multilingual 911 dispatchers on staff.

It takes an average of 30 seconds to get an interpreter on the line when needed, Valois said. In emergency situations, saving seconds can be vital, especially when the 911 responder can’t tell what the emergency is.

“If you have to work through a third party interpreter it is going to take a few seconds longer,” Valois said. “There’s no way of us knowing for sure what it is until the interpreter talks to the caller and tells us.”

Having more multilingual dispatchers on staff would lessen the need for third party interpreters, Valois said. Dispatchers who speak other languages must go through training and testing to receive certification for their language.

The most recent class of incoming dispatchers is 24 members, the largest in years, according to Valois, but they won’t be finished with training for six to nine more months.

Vacancies are an issue throughout LAPD. Last April, Mayor Karen Bass set a goal to reach 9,500 officers by boosting recruitment and hiring efforts amid a staff exodus. At the time, Bass called her objective “ambitious” but said it needed to happen.

In October, a report from the personnel department said there were 2,473 vacant positions in the LAPD, the most of any city agency.

As city leaders work to fill the vacancies and get more 911 dispatchers on board, Rodriguez emphasized the need for rapid emergency response under all circumstances.

“In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, we need a system that allows anyone to report crime or emergency events without delays,” she said.

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