Asian Community Safety Initiative

Asian Community Safety Initiative: A Partnership to prevent hate crimes and violent crime

For limited-English proficient, AAPI residents, language barriers during 911 calls and reporting crimes remains a “very big problem.”  

WATCH live Facebook recording of the Asian Community Safety Initiative here.

PHILADELPHIA, PA— On October 20th, 80+ AAPI community members, advocacy leaders, and law enforcement representatives gathered at Crane Community Center and on Zoom for a town hall meeting to discuss safety for Asian American communities in Philadelphia. Live language interpretation in Chinese, Khmer, Korean, Indonesian, and Vietnamese was provided for virtual attendees. Moderated by John Chin, Executive Director of PCDC, attendees heard from guest speakers Jennifer Arbittier Williams, Acting United States Attorney for Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Commissioner Danielle Outlaw of the Philadelphia Police Department.

During the townhall, FBI representatives raised the point about Asian immigrant business owners being targeted for home invasions because of “perceived stereotype” that Asian immigrants keep a large sum of cash at home and that Asians don’t report crime. Speakers from the Philadelphia Police Department, DOJ and FBI all urged Asian immigrant communities to report incidents of crime. Law enforcement made the distinction that while certain crimes might qualify and be treated as federal offenses, most crime reporting goes through 911.

After the presentations, speakers took questions from the audience both virtual and in-person. Questions ranged from how to overcome language barriers, to how to ensure cultural competency, to how the Department could leverage future technologies, such as text alerts and apps, to assist with crime reporting by the community. 

Mabel Chan, National Senior Advisor of Chinese Benevolent Association, who attended in person, expressed that when Chinese-speaking citizens called 911 to report crime, they got hung up on due to the language barrier. “It’s a very big problem…because they just speak Chinese. I think the police department maybe [doesn’t] understanding what they’re talking [about]. [The police department] just hang up the phone….I know the police department likes to try and help them. But language is a big problem.” Mabel Chan continues to share about an experience her family member had a few weeks prior while trying to reach 911, “She called, call, call many times….It’s a really big problem.” (Time stamp 1:36:36).   In the Zoom chat, a virtual attendee agreed with Chan’s concern and shared they felt it was common that 911 calls are dropped when waiting for interpretation services.

“She called, call, call many times….It’s a really big problem.”

In response, Randy Duque, Deputy Director, Community Relations Division of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, shared: “All city services in Philadelphia require language access…one of the things we talked about when you call 911 is yes…it’s be great if you had someone on the line the immediately speaks that language.” Duque elaborated that ideally citizens should be able to be specific about the language being spoken. “It’s a little bit of an ask, but we always we try to say that, you know, if a person can at least just say ‘I speak….’ and then whatever language. So “I speak Mandarin’ or ‘I speak Cantonese,’ that way they can get the correct interpretation….And then to also understand that it might take a couple of seconds, minutes to get someone who talks that language.” (Time stamp 1:38:28).  

Benjamin Nash, Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner of Investigations, immediately followed up Duque’s response by acknowledging that “I don’t doubt there has been a level of frustration with trying to communicate with the police.” Deputy Commissioner Nash brought attention that the police department has location services for both landline and cell phone calls, which means 911 operators can locate where the call is coming in from. Ultimately, Deputy Commissioner Nash’s parting advice echoed Duque’s (Time stamp 1:40:35).  

During an emergency situation, language barriers might mean life or death as callers might wait “seconds, minutes” for interpretation services.

Deputy Commissioner Nash also recommended that callers try to stay on the line after calling 911, because the longer they’re on the line, there’s a higher chance police will be able to recognize there’s a language barrier. And they “will make attempts” to get the appropriate language interpretation, while officers are headed to the location.   

Additional concerns from attendees about lack of language access in emergency situations were raised in person and on Zoom after this point. As a city with a growing immigrant population, the language access needs for city services have also increased. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, the number of limited-English proficient immigrants in Philadelphia rose to 68,000, nearly double since 2000. What’s more, is that households lacking a proficient English speaker over the age of 14 accounted for one third of the city’s immigrant households. Within the city’s ethnic Chinese population alone, 61% are limited-English proficient and 93% of PCDC’s clients served in the past year reported limited-English proficiency.  

During an emergency situation, language barriers might mean life or death as callers might wait “seconds, minutes” for interpretation services. Rather than waiting for immigrant communities to build power from the linguistic margins, our governments – city, state, and national – should affirmatively ensure that first-generation Asian-American immigrants are able to exercise a voice of their own.

“The coming together of community and law enforcement is a critical tool to abating violence, especially against Asian American communities,” said John Chin, Executive Director, PCDC. “As a community-based organization, PCDC has been helping victims, leading advocacy, and championing equitable resources to overcome language and cultural barriers. This meeting was a step in the right direction, and we appreciate the Department of Justice and Philadelphia Police Department’s commitment to addressing hate crimes and violence against Asian American communities.”

PCDC looks forward to more community conversations with law enforcement on cost-effect steps that agencies can take to meet these particular needs facing AAPI communities across the city. 


*Chinese language versions of all presentations will be made available shortly. Thank you for your patience.