A recent tragedy in Minnesota amplified community conversations about the importance of language access in emergency situations and beyond. On February 11, 2022, 65-year-old Yia Xiong died of multiple gunshot wounds when St. Paul police officers responded to reports of a man threatening residents of his apartment building with a knife. Two responding officers, each with one year of law enforcement experience, approached Mr. Xiong with weapons drawn. Publicly released police camera footage reflects that the officers shouted instructions at Mr. Xiong in English as he walked toward his apartment unit, unlocked its door, and entered the unit alone. An officer kicked the door open as Mr. Xiong tried to close it. The encounter then escalated and ended tragically.
Mr. Xiong’s family members report that Mr. Xiong did not speak English and lost his hearing while fighting on behalf of the United States in Laos. The question of whether the officers’ actions were justified is not within the scope of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center’s work to prevent and alleviate elder abuse. Still, the Minnesota Elder Justice Center recognizes that immigrant communities and BIPOC communities have experienced abuses at the hands of law enforcement. Concerns surrounding Mr. Xiong’s death reaffirm the Minnesota Elder Justice Center’s commitment to offering professional training on issues relevant to serving older and vulnerable adults and providing meaningful service access to individuals with limited English proficiency.
Federal Executive Order 13166 identifies language access as a necessary consideration for federal agencies and federally assisted programs implementing services that do not discriminate on the basis of national origin in violation of the Civil Rights Act. 42 U.S.C. §2000d et seq. Law enforcement departments like the St. Paul Police Department operate with federal assistance. For example, on March 17, 2022, the city of St. Paul issued a press release regarding its acceptance of a $3.75-million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS). COPS is a federal agency with a plan for language access pursuant to Executive Order 13166. The Department of Justice offers a sample police department policy for interacting with community members with limited English proficiency. The department’s website identifies the sample policy it as particularly relevant for law enforcement agencies receiving department grants.
Federal Executive Order 13166 also applies to the Minnesota Elder Justice Center. While the Minnesota Elder Justice Center operates under a variety of funding source, the center also receives federal funding available through the U.S. Department of Justice. Like the city of St. Paul, the Minnesota Elder Justice Center has identified Hmong, Spanish, and Somali as primary language groups among the populations we serve. Applying the Department of Justice’s four-factor guidance, we offer our website in Hmong, Spanish, and Somali. When our staff members encounter individuals seeking services in language we do not speak, the Minnesota Elder Justice Center works to identify relevant interpretation and translation services.
Meaningful access to interpretation and translation services will not always be possible. The Department of Justice’s sample policy for law enforcement agencies acknowledges that “exigent circumstances may require some deviations.” p. 3. The policy continues, “In such situations, personnel are to use the most reliable, temporary interpreter available.” Id. The policy explicitly identifies the availability of a multilingual law enforcement employee via radio or telephonic interpretation as options. p. 4. The key is being responsive to need. While law enforcement and the Minnesota Elder Justice Center operate with very different roles and responsibilities, the Minnesota Elder Justice Center recognizes the importance of its own commitment to responsive service and openhearted collaboration in work for a more just, equitable, and inclusive future without discrimination based upon national origin.
Laura Orr, Staff Attorney
Minnesota Elder Justice Center