Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote about the measure in a December letter to law enforcement agencies.

Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote about the measure in a December letter to law enforcement agencies. Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Getty Images

The DOJ works with law enforcement to improve how deputies communicate with people who don’t speak English

A ProPublica investigation revealed how a grammatical mistake in Spanish led sheriff’s deputies in Wisconsin to wrongly blame a Nicaraguan dairy worker for his son’s death.

The inability of police to communicate with immigrants who don’t speak English has long created problems, sometimes with tragic consequences. Those obstacles can inhibit crime victims from calling law enforcement for help and make it difficult for investigators to solve crimes.

But as part of an initiative by the Biden administration, the Justice Department is pushing law enforcement agencies to better serve people who don’t speak proficient English.

Last week, for example, the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington agreed to appoint a manager for a language-access program, restrict the use of children and others who aren’t qualified to serve as interpreters to narrowly defined situations, and develop a training program and complaint process.

In December 2022, the Justice Department agreed to similar measures with the city and county of Denver and the Police Department there in response to complaints that officers had failed to provide language assistance to Burmese- and Rohingya-speaking residents, including during arrests.

And in Dane County, Wis., the Justice Department is now working with the sheriff’s office on its first-ever written policy on how to respond to incidents involving people with limited English proficiency.

This development follows a ProPublica report last year about the flawed investigation into the death of a Nicaraguan boy on a dairy farm in the county.

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on its work in Dane County but referred reporters to its law enforcement language access initiative, launched in December 2022. Under the initiative, law enforcement agencies can get help improving how they respond to people with limited English proficiency, including technical assistance, resources and training.

“We have seen that a failure to provide such meaningful access can chill reporting of crimes, leave victims and witnesses with [limited English proficiency] vulnerable to flawed investigations and even wrongful arrest, and threaten the safety of officers and the general public alike,” Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote in a December letter to law enforcement agencies.

Under the federal Civil Rights Act, agencies that receive federal funding are prohibited from discriminating against people because of their national origin; as a result, they must provide meaningful language assistance to people with limited English proficiency.

ProPublica had found that, due to a language barrier, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office wrongly concluded that the boy’s father, José María Rodríguez Uriarte, was operating a piece of farming equipment that killed 8-year-old Jefferson. The sheriff’s deputy who questioned Rodríguez made a grammatical error in Spanish that contributed to her misunderstanding of what had happened.

Jefferson’s death was ruled an accident, but Rodríguez was publicly blamed.

At the time of Jefferson’s death, the sheriff’s office lacked any written policies on what officers should do when they encounter people who speak a language other than English or when they should bring in an interpreter. The sheriff’s office also relied on employees to self-report their proficiency in foreign languages.

As a general practice — though not a rule — patrol deputies are supposed to ask if any of their colleagues speak that language and, if none are available, seek help from other agencies, the sheriff’s office said previously. On the night Jefferson died, the deputy who interviewed the father was the only Dane official on the scene who self-reported speaking any Spanish.

In response to our findings, the sheriff’s office has said that its goal is to conduct thorough and factual investigations, and that it would welcome any new information from any witnesses or parties who wanted to come forward.

After our story was published, the sheriff’s office drafted a proposed policy on how to respond to incidents involving residents with limited English proficiency. It establishes a testing process to determine employees’ foreign language skills, breaks down how deputies are supposed to identify what language somebody speaks and commits to providing training so employees know when and how to access professional interpreters.

Elise Schaffer, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, told ProPublica in an email that the draft policy was created based on the Justice Department’s standards and had been written “prior to any inquiries from DOJ.” Schaffer said the draft policy has been “submitted to the DOJ for their input and any recommendations they may have.”

In our reporting in Wisconsin, we found that workers on dairy farms routinely encounter language barriers in their interactions with law enforcement. Records showed that police officers and sheriff’s deputies responding to incidents on farms often rely on workers’ supervisors, co-workers, relatives and sometimes even children to interpret. During traffic stops, officers routinely turn to Google Translate on their phones rather than professional interpreters.

Mariah Hennen, the program manager of the Farmworker Project at the nonprofit Legal Action of Wisconsin, said language gaps can lead to serious consequences for immigrant farmworkers when they are victims of crimes.

“Farmworkers want to be able to report what happened to them,” she said. “But often [they] are not able to do that fully when they cannot communicate clearly with law enforcement.”

Rodríguez said his experience led him to believe that, because he’s an immigrant, authorities weren’t concerned about figuring out what happened to his son. “I am Hispanic and so, of course, they didn’t care about trying hard to do their job,” he said in Spanish in a recent interview.

He said he hopes federal attention to language access in Dane County will help other immigrants who encounter law enforcement. “When police feel like they’re required to do so,” he said, “maybe they’ll try harder.”

Mariam Elba contributed reporting.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.