Fear of law enforcement, communication issues hamper use of 911

By: - February 1, 2021 4:05 am
Hand holding cell phone with emergency number 911 on black background

(Photo: Getty Images)

For many members of Tennessee’s immigrant communities, calling 911 in an emergency situation is not a viable option, and advocates are working to remove fear of the system and make it more user-friendly.

Last year’s police brutality protests and years of anti-immigration policies have strained relations between New Americans and law enforcement officials, and while advocates are now making attempts to reduce crime in immigrant communities, major obstacles threaten progress.

Immigrants are still reluctant to call for help in emergency situations. According to data received from Nashville’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC), Spanish speakers make up the vast majority of callers from Nashville’s immigrant communities, with 5,921 calls total in 2020. In comparison, ECC data from 2020 reports that only 269 calls were received in Arabic, despite Nashville having the largest Kurdish community in the nation. Other languages had similarly low numbers, such as 22 calls in Somali, 55 calls in Swahili, 11 calls in Vietnamese, 38 calls in Russian, one call in Romanian and one phone call in Portuguese. 

Stephen Martini, director of Metro Nashville Department of Emergency Communications, getting a COVID-19 vaccine recently. (Photo: Department of Nashville Emergency)
Stephen Martini, director of Metro Nashville Department of Emergency Communications, getting a COVID-19 vaccine recently. (Photo: Department of Nashville Emergency)

It’s not a question of accessibility, said Stephen Martini, director at ECC. Although the center doesn’t employ multilingual personnel, coordinated efforts with partners have allowed them the capability to respond to  911 calls in 300 different languages in less than 30 seconds. Within those 30 seconds, the operators establish that a translator is needed and calls are transferred to partners who are specifically trained to decipher information from limited-English speakers. 

Partnering with professional language services, such as Voiance and Telelanguage, “just makes more sense,” said Martini. “We do some basic training when it comes to speaking Spanish, but there’s 30 to 35 different dialects of Spanish so we do not staff people because it would be impossible to speak to everybody.”

Technology has created opportunities for improving translations into different languages. ECC is currently working on texting software that will detect the language being used by the device initiating the text to 911 and translate the messages to the operator in English and send returning messages in the appropriate language. According to Martini, they anticipate that feature of the telephone call processing software to be available in a few months. 

The software is currently available in other Tennessee counties and would have been available sooner in Davidson County, but ECC officials waited “until we have confidence that we can have it available to other languages,” said Martini. 

Complex reasons for fear of using 911

The bigger problem is that immigrants are still reluctant to call 911 in the first place. The Metro Nashville Police Department’s new Office of Community Engagement & Partnerships put together by Chief John Drake will  have a greater outreach presence in immigrant communities. A 15-member unit will be working as a liaison to Nashville’s diverse immigrant communities in order to enhance existing relationships and form new ones.

Metro Nashville Police Captain Carlos Lara (Photo: Nashville.gov)
Metro Nashville Police Captain Carlos Lara (Photo: Nashville.gov)

“To help the immigrant communities understand the importance of calling 911 when they are in a crisis, we first have to gain their trust. We do that by reaching out to the communities and their leaders,” said Capt. Carlos Lara, community outreach officer. 

According to Lara, the first Latino captain in the Metro Nashville Police Force, part of Metro’s efforts to improve community relations will be widespread education on 911 and understanding the cultural reasons as to why immigrants don’t call 911. 

The solution is as complex as each community. According to Lara, police have identified a number of reasons.

“Fear and distrust of police, in general, due to experiences they have had with them in their countries of origin,” said Lara. 

“Threats from those victimizing them who say that police will arrest them and they will be deported if they contact us, and the victim is undocumented. They don’t speak or understand English. They are new to this country and don’t know about 911,” he said.

The pandemic has seen a rise in domestic abuse and child abuse, and in the immigrant community, much of this may be going unreported. 

According to immigrant attorney Steven Simerlein, Latinos and immigrants may skip calling the police altogether and work through a lawyer to solve domestic disputes. Undocumented families may find themselves in tricky situations where the abusive partner is the sole source of income in a foreign country.

“One of the problems you have with the undocumented is that someone who becomes detained under a domestic matter is at risk at being detained by ICE,” said Simmerlain.

He often works with police officials to find alternate solutions for individuals detained. The collateral consequences of calling 911 can be severe, making callers potentially unaware that they should only be calling in emergency situations. 

“The immigrant community should be sensitive to what exactly does that mean [to call 911]. It doesn’t mean that if your domestic partner is rude or insulting and maybe obnoxious, that it’s an appropriate use of 911.

“But if you feel that based on that person’s conduct that your life is in danger, that’s a contextual question… it’s difficult to give you a one-size-fits-all approach,” he added. 

In 2007, the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office agreed to participate in 287(g),  a program where state and local police officers collaborate with the federal government to enforce federal immigration laws.

The program was heavily criticized. Immigration and criminal justice researcher Amada Armenta conducted fieldwork in Nashville between 2009 and 2013 and found that the program was mostly used to “ensnare thousands of low-level misdemeanor violators,” which included those arrested for driving without a license. 

Sheriff Daron Hall ended the program in 2012 but distrust and fear remained. 

Relying on neighbors to monitor crime

In the Kurdish community, members often rely on each other instead of calling authorities. 

Increasing shootings over the past year in the Kurdish community, which includes Coptic Egyptians, were affecting local businesses and dissuading customers. Different community leaders met and made a coordinated effort to place surveillance cameras and found that the criminals were not from their tightly-knit community.

Elmahaba Center for Coptic Christians in Nashville.
Elmahaba Center for Coptic Christians in Nashville.

“These people would come in just for the shootings. They would come in and it seems like some type of gang rivalry where they would come to shoot at each other at this location, which is really dangerous,” said Lydia Yousief, director at Elmahaba Center. The situation was extra precarious considering the location would have been frequented by children waiting for school buses, so “without the pandemic, [they] probably would have shot a kid.”

Kurdish community leaders reached out to Nashville Mayor John Cooper in October and held a meeting attended by Metro Council members and police about possible solutions, but community leaders were dissatisfied with the results.

“They slapped (a sticker) on all the buildings ‘this area is protected by Metro Police’. They got the business owners to agree to put in more surveillance cameras, which again was not the issue because their surveillance cameras were already capturing the literal faces of the people,” said Yousief.  “So now all the business owners are really pissed and it was a very good conversation to realize that the police were not the solution.”

North Nashville neighborhood fundraises to fight crime

In December, Abby Lee Hood wrote about residents of a North Nashville neighborhood who also decided to raise money to buy their own surveillance cameras to protect against crime.

Gina Coleman has lived in Haynes Park for 39 years and she and neighbors raised $4,500 for 2 security cameras in the neighborhood. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gina Coleman has lived in Haynes Park for 39 years and she and neighbors raised $4,500 for 2 security cameras in the neighborhood. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The community now implements other options beyond calling the police, such as reporting suspicious activity to community leaders. Other community members also view the police as antagonistic due to limited English. The younger members of the community are reluctant as well due to fears of possible racial profiling.

Cultural notions also serve to dissuade immigrants from contacting authorities. Culturally, the Egyptian community tends to solve their problems privately. In cases of domestic disputes, members may contact religious leaders for advice, which can become problematic because “religious leadership is not trained to handle domestic violence,” said Yousief. “Egyptian logic is to contact someone who can solve the problem, also keeping things in the family because of “‘shame politics.’”

If advocates can agree on anything, it’s that the overall issue affecting immigrant victims of violence is the lack of resources, or the awareness of resources. 

Yousief said Kurdish victims of domestic abuse have reported having traumatic experiences in women’s shelters due to language barriers and limited income. 

Others worry about being judged for their documentation, and “fear of police pushed people in potentially deadly domestic abuse situations,” said Karina Ramirez, a bilingual therapist.

Part of Metro’s community outreach initiatives is connecting “[immigrants] with resources they may need, but not have,” said Lara. 

Resources do exist for immigrants, regardless of documentation status, and part of the community outreach officer’s job will include connecting victims to the Family Intervention Program, which was created specifically to address domestic violence in Davidson County. 

According to Ramirez, one of their main goals is to help victims understand that their purpose is to connect them with resources despite working through a law enforcement program. Resources include healthcare, counseling, food assistance,  financial assistance and recommendations for immigrant lawyers.

“Regardless of someone’s immigration status, they are eligible for services,” said Beth Thomas, refugee and immigrant specialist at the center.If you’ve been affected by a crime in some way, you have rights.”

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,  victims of domestic abuse, regardless of immigration status, have the right to obtain a protection of order, the right to legal separation or divorce without consent of the spouse, the right to share certain marital property, the right to divide financial assets in cases of divorce and the right to ask for custody of children and receive financial support.

The recent bombing in downtown Nashville knocked out emergency communication services to several areas for several days, showcasing the vulnerabilities in Nashville’s telecommunication services and creating dangerous situations for residents. For a few days, Nashville residents lived with a limited ability to call for help.

Lara hopes to mend existing strained relations between police and immigrant communities, acknowledging that understanding cultural beliefs and working with community leaders is essential, along with “consistent and respectful interactions by police is essential.”

“We also want to educate them about our role as police officers and what to expect when they call us for help. We want to make sure to dispel any misunderstandings of how we perform our duties,” said Lara. 


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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.