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Language Access

Notwithstanding the multilingual “Welcome” signs that grace the entrance to most City agencies, non-English speakers are hard pressed to receive equal access to services. It took me threatening a law suit back in 2016 for the Sheriff to make the sign-up webpage available in languages besides English even though that’s what the law requires. And this January, an injured Chinese victim of a violent robbery at the Good Orchard Bakery called the police for help and waited more than three hours for a response – perhaps no surprise given that just 26 percent of the public contact staff at the Department of Emergency Management are bilingual. At the Board of Supervisors, anyone wishing to make public comment in a language other than English must arrange for their own interpreter. At the Hall of Justice, where San Francisco’s criminal cases are heard, defendants and victims alike are regularly given critical paperwork in English only. These examples are just a tiny hint of the myriad ways in which we fail to fully include non-English speakers in San Francisco. We can do better. 

If I am elected district attorney in San Francisco, I will do better. I have lived, studied, and worked in five countries and learned to speak Spanish and Portuguese.  Learning these languages has also taught me the importance of communicating across borders and meeting people where they are rather than always demanding they come to me. My partner, like one third of San Franciscans, is an immigrant.

The United States has always been a country of immigrants and has never had an official national language. Yet most Americans speak only one language and most governments—from national to local—do business only in English. As the Trump administration has waged a xenophobic war on immigrants and non-English speakers, it is essential that State and local governments stand up to protect and include their diverse communities. 

San Francisco is a city built and shaped by immigrants. Spanish speakers built the Mission and El Camino Royal, connecting it with other missions down the coast. Chinese speakers built the railroads and so much more of the infrastructure that connected San Francisco to the rest of the country. The city’s Language Access Ordinance is laudable, requiring all government services be accessible in the City’s primary non-English languages: Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Russian. But there is a gap between what the law says and what the city is doing.  The truth is that the 21 percent of residents who have limited English proficiency are not getting the services they desperately need. 

Nowhere is language access more essential and urgent than law enforcement. When a San Franciscan calls 911 to report an emergency, or when police arrive on the scene, public safety requires speedy, clear communication. When that communication fails, lives are stake. Crimes go undetected and unsolved. Immigrant communities choose not to even call for help. Police risk escalating otherwise manageable situations. And witnesses opt out of participating in court. In an era where police are asked to be the first line of response to myriad problems from criminal to public health and housing, it is essential that police officers be proficient in the languages of the communities they serve and protect. Yet the police department is one of the agencies with the least language diversity: barely 10 percent of the public contact staff are bilingual (as compared to, say, the Department of Public Health where 38 percent are bilingual). Similarly, if the District Attorney is to successfully prosecute cases after police have made an arrest, to give victims a voice in every case, to understand the cultural context of the cases so as to truly administer justice, it’s staff—both victim services and line attorneys—must reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of San Francisco. 

Most San Franciscans only speaks their native language. I’m among the public employees who speak multiple languages because I lived abroad—but it was a long road and I stumbled along the way. I know all too well that being bilingual cannot be a prerequisite for full participation in society or full protection of the rule of law. That’s why I’m committing to hire, retain, and promote diverse staff within the District Attorney’s office. That’s why I promise to work with the police and the fire department to increase the language skills of the men and women on the front lines.