Methuen police case raises concerns over language gaps

Police need guidance in overcoming people’s language barriers

In his front-page article Saturday (“Methuen knew Spanish form on drunk driving was faulty, suit says”), Michael Levenson wrote of a federal suit being brought against the City of Methuen over misinformation on a form in Spanish. While I have not seen the Methuen form in question, I have examined many such consent forms statewide in my work as an expert witness in cases involving foreign languages and poor proficiency in English.

I believe that there is a larger problem underlying this suit: Our police departments are not, as a rule, responding adequately to their changing demographics. In Massachusetts there is not even a law that the police must seek a qualified interpreter to speak to a suspect.

Operating under the influence is one of the most common crimes and is the case that requires the greatest amount of communication. However, people who are limited English proficient, or LEP, often do not receive the same information given to everyone else when they are stopped for operating under the influence. Some are simply processed in English, which can mean near incomprehension.


Addressing these language issues requires more than simply hiring police who speak other languages. All police need guidance in dealing with LEP people. Qualified interpreters should be required, and all forms in all languages should be reviewed by competent linguists.

Michael O’Laughlin


The writer is the director of Boston University’s certificate program in interpretation.

Interpreter services meet
opposition in the courts

Get Truth and Consequences in your inbox:
Michael A. Cohen takes on the absurdities and hypocrisies of the current political moment.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Re “Methuen knew Spanish form on drunk driving was faulty, suit says”: Although federal law has long mandated that language barriers must be overcome by agencies receiving federal funds, compliance in the justice system has been slow and uneven. Great strides were initially made in the courts to improve interpreter services; however, that trend was reversed four years ago under new leadership at the Trial Court. More recent actions by the Trial Court reduced both the quality and quantity of those services. Because the Trial Court would not even talk to interpreters about these alarming developments, among other reasons, our organization filed suit two years ago. Nothing has changed, so we continue our litigation.

Outside the courts, the quality of interpretation and translation in police stations has never really been addressed, as the case in Levenson’s article illustrates. There are few towns and cities that have done anything more than the bare minimum to provide language services to those who need them most: people who are limited English proficient. In a globalized world of increasing migration, these low standards for interpretation and translation should no longer be tolerated, not in a great state like Massachusetts.

Norma Mann

Narragansett, R.I.

The writer is president of the Massachusetts Association of Court Interpreters.