Two years ago, Linda Benabdi assisted Fairfax County police in interrogating an Egyptian man accused of trying to abduct a woman from Seven Corners Shopping Center. Benabdi, a civilian employe of the Arlington Police Department who is fluent in Arabic, spent several hours interviewing the man in a jail cell.
"He was in tears," she recalled later. "He didn't understand why he was picked up. He was just trying to get directions."
Police dropped the charges, she said.
Benabdi, who holds graduate degrees in Arabic and French and speaks several other languages, has witnessed many such scenes around the Washington area, where the languages, customs and cultures of a growing population of non-English-speaking immigrants and refugees can create barriers and misunderstandings between them and police.
Perhaps more than elsewhere, the problem is evident in Arlington, a county that has seen its non-English speaking population leap more than 300 percent during the last decade to include more than 12,450 residents. Officials in the county's refugee center say at least 53 foreign languages and dialects are now spoken in Arlington.
In the District, Maryland and Virginia, more than 510,000 residents speak languages other than English in their homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The situation has made bilingual or multilingual speakers "extremely important" to police, said Arlington Police Chief William K. (Smokey) Stover. He said his department has had to give knowledge of foreign languages great consideration in hiring. "Otherwise, there's no communication" between police and foreign-speaking communities, " . . . and that's bad."
Benabdi is one of 12 employes of the Arlington Police Department who speak more than one language. Like many area jurisdictions, Arlington has established a language bank that lists 120 county employes who speak foreign languages. Arlington police tap that list and use a network of volunteer translators and interpreters organized by county chapters of the Red Cross, United Way and the American Association of University Women. In the District and Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties, police departments and local governments have compiled similar lists and are looking for qualified multilingual applicants.
No one understands the need for them better than Sgt. J.D. Caldwell, a supervisor in the Arlington Police Communications Unit, which receives about 76,000 calls each month on the 911 emergency number.
"In some cases, you might be forced to dispatch someone when you don't need to because you can't understand or because they couldn't explain it clearly," Caldwell said. Most foreign-speaking callers "know enough English to give out a basic message like 'Fire,' " Caldwell said. "If they don't, we're in better shape in the daytime than we are at night."
One reason is that Benabdi, a crime analyst, and Mimi Nogales, a secretary in the department, work daytime shifts. The two are often called on to assist police. When they do, they take on a job that requires not only their knowledge of foreign languages but also an understanding of foreign customs, the ability to identify languages or dialects and a degree of compassion.
The responses of a man who spoke garbled French and responded quizzically to Benabdi's queries to him in that language led her to decide initially that the man, arrested on a misdemeanor charge, was "either retarded or mentally ill." Eventually, she learned he was Haitian. When spoken to in the French Haitian Creole dialect, "the guy all of a sudden woke up," she recalled. "He wasn't crazy; he wasn't retarded."
Once Benabdi was called in the middle of the night to the bedside of a woman critically injured in an auto accident. The woman, an Israeli born in Morocco, was deaf and had only limited speech. "She read my lips in Arabic and French," says Benabdi, who stayed with the woman through the night trying to piece together what happened for police.
In Montgomery County, which has 24-hour emergency telephone service in Spanish, the Police Human Relations Unit conducts classes for recent immigrants and refugees to teach them how to contact police and to explain the differences between local laws and those in their native countries.
For example, it is customary in Mexico City to put items in a shopping bag while going through a store and show them to the clerk at the checkout counter. "They can't do that here," explained Montgomery Officer Karen McNally. "If you have concealed it, that's enough to arrest you."
Officers in Arlington and Montgomery County have been offered money to drop charges or tear up traffic tickets, according to Benabdi and McNally. "It's customary in some countries," McNally said.
The Montgomery classes often make a difference in the number of crimes reported by non-English-speaking persons and whether they cooperate with police. The reason is simple, but profound, McNally said: "In many foreign countries people are just scared to death of the police."
Despite the facility with languages of Benabdi and other translators who assist police officers, there are occasions that can't be handled by the multilingual volunteers police often call upon. In those cases, basic ingenuity helps.
When an officer radioed Arlington police headquarters requesting someone who spoke Mandarin Chinese, Police Sgt. Florence Starzynski acted quickly.
"I went to the first Chinese restaurant I could find," she said. The cook intervened for police.