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Back to Archives | Back to June 2005 Contents 

Reaching English-as-a-Second-Language Communities:
Talking with the Police

By Jones Moy, Chief of Police, and Brent Archibald, Sergeant, Monterey Park, California, Police Department

motorist is driving down the road when a patrol car pulls up behind him. Like most drivers, the motorist feels nervous just seeing the patrol car in the rearview mirror and even a bit fearful after the red lights start flashing and the officer signals the motorist to pull over. Traffic stops can cause anxiety in even the most seasoned drivers; imagine the impact on the driver who does not speak English very well and has recently arrived from another country. Imagine the challenge such traffic stops present to officers who must attempt to communicate with drivers who do not understand what is being asked.

Talking with the Police, a program developed by the Monterey Park Police Department and the public library, is designed to help nonnative English speakers improve their English skills, learn about the American law enforcement system, and overcome their fear of police. It gives adults relevant living lessons that engage them in lively discussions, community research, and question-and-answer sessions with local law enforcement officers.

The program was developed as response to the needs of a community where 43 percent of adults are limited speakers of English. The language practices center on a variety of activities in which learners interact with police officers, including tours of the police station, ride-alongs, and visits by other guest speakers. The program motivates adults to practice English, promotes public confidence, and increases public understanding of law enforcement practices within the community.

The Need
Monterey Park, located 7.5 miles east of Los Angeles, has been cited as one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Its population of 60,051 is 61.5 percent Asian, 28.9 percent Hispanic, and 7.2 percent White. Many new arrivals to the United States, particularly those from China, begin their American life in Monterey Park. They begin to learn English, gain employment, and become acclimated to a new culture. This cultural mix creates a great opportunity for Monterey Park residents to be enriched by exposure to other cultures. At the same time, it can pose some challenges, particularly for law enforcement officers.

Where more than two adults in five have limited English-speaking skills, misunderstandings and miscommunications between the residents and law enforcement officers are common. The department observed numerous misunderstandings in the basics: recognizing law enforcement officers (some residents do not know the difference between police officers, security guards, and firemen), using the emergency 911 system, responding to a traffic stop (some people stop right in the middle of the road rather than pull to the curb, whereas others refuse to sign the traffic citation). Response to domestic calls are often complicated by the families' limited English and even more so by their lack of understanding of American laws and legal ramifications of domestic violence. These misunderstandings can lead officers to spend more time than usual on calls and can even lead some citizens to resist arrest.

While the police department grappled with how to help nonnative English speakers understand common police procedures, the adult students in the Lamp (Literacy for All of Monterey Park) Program at the city's Bruggemeyer Memorial Library were asking for opportunities to practice talking with the police. The immigrant students wanted to practice what to say and do when pulled over in traffic stops. "Should I get out of the car?" they asked. "Can I ask the officer to not give me a ticket?" Even though they are learning English, students say because of their nervousness they sometimes forget all of their English when in the presence of a uniformed officer. They told Lamp staff they felt intimidated around the police, mostly because of their encounters with law enforcement in their homelands where they may have had little or no rights and were not protected from abuse and corruption.

The Partnership
In 2001 the Monterey Park Police Department partnered with Lamp to help adult English language learners to develop and use English literacy skills in context of gaining knowledge about the law enforcement issues that affect them and their community.

Funding: The partnership was able to take advantage of new federal funding under the Workforce Investment Act, Title II, Adult Education and Family Literacy Act: English Literacy and Civics Education, administered by the California Department of Education. The funding enabled the partners to work with Lamp's adult students to identify law enforcement topics of interest to them, to develop the curriculum to teach English in the context of acquiring knowledge, and to pay the class teachers. The project then was developed in three stages.

Content Development: A 12-week class was offered not only to teach English but also to develop the material for future classes. In response to advertisements in community flyers and local Chinese-language newspapers, more than 100 adults called to register, verifying the need for and interest in such a program. The class was limited to 30 students, who met twice a week. Other interested students were placed on a waiting list for future classes.

A three-member team developed the program: an ESL (English-as-a-second-language) teacher to facilitate the lessons; a police officer to assure accuracy of the content and to answer questions; and a curriculum developer to take notes on the students' questions, the police procedures and laws discussed, and the areas in which students had difficulty with English basics. The team's work culminated in a workbook and teacher's guide that incorporates pictures of class members and city personnel and adaptations of police department forms.

Field Test: After the initial class ended, the police department's Community Relations Bureau edited a draft of the material for accuracy. Lessons were then field-tested by ESL teachers in the Alhambra Adult Schools and in four additional classes sponsored by the library. Based on feedback, it was further modified and edited to its final form.

The Program
Talking with the Police has become a standard and popular class offered by the Lamp Program and Monterey Park Police Department.

Materials: The workbook contains nine lessons that serve as a foundation for the class. These often lead to other discussions and topics among the students. In the development phase, it became apparent that it was critical that there be no misunderstanding about key information. For that reason, basic critical information in each lesson was put in a gray box, and a translation of that box is included at the back of the workbook. Translations are in Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese. The topics are as follows:

  • Meet the police

  • Traffic stops

  • Traffic accidents

  • Calling 911

  • Reporting a crime

  • Preventing crimes

  • Domestic violence

  • Accused of a crime

  • Filing a complaint

The teacher's guide contains background information to help the teachers, instructions on how to teach the lessons, assessment checklists, and a pretest and a posttest.

Guest Speakers: Classes include frequent visits from a police officer. This is a critical element of the program. The officer answers questions that have been raised in the classes that are beyond the teacher's knowledge. Just as important, it creates an opportunity for students to speak directly with an officer and overcome any fear or sense of intimidation. One of the great byproducts built into the program is that the students will interact with the police often enough through the course of the program that they should become less fearful.

Other speakers visit the classes to respond to students' interests and questions and to expose them to other key community personnel. Often these speakers include representatives of the department's Neighborhood Watch Program and firefighters.

Field Trips: The students have reported that the highlight of each class is a tour of the police department and the jail. Students have been particularly impressed with their observation of the dispatch center and how staff handles 911 calls. They also frequently comment on how clean the jail is, dispelling previous ideas held over from their home country. Students also participate in a ride-along with an officer. To expand the reach of this experience, the ride-along students report their experience to the class.

Videos: The Monterey Park Police Department has been particularly concerned over the misunderstandings about domestic violence. The police department joined with a local community group to develop a play to communicate the seriousness of domestic violence and to explain law enforcement action. In the play, a family has a domestic dispute in which the father harms the mother. Her brother calls 911, the responding police officers make an arrest, and the father is booked and given a court hearing.

Monterey Park officers are the police actors and local lawyers and a judge are the court personnel actors. After the play, a panel composed of the chief of police, the lawyers, the judge, and a number of social service agency representatives conduct a question-and-answer session with the audience. The play has been presented with simultaneous interpretations in Cantonese and with Mandarin. A video of the Mandarin production is now used as a key teaching tool during the domestic violence portion of the Lamp class.

Program Goals and Results
Talking with the Police has two principal goals: to improve the English skills of adults who speak limited English, and to increase their knowledge of U.S. law enforcement procedures.

Far too often, adults enrolled in language classes are easily discouraged and soon drop out because of the lack of applicability of the classes to the real world. Teaching English in the context of law enforcement in the United States to new immigrants provides high interest, relevant lessons that engage learner in lively discussions, community research, and question-and-answer sessions with local law enforcement officers in a safe and non threatening environment.

Testing English Skills: In compliance with the California Department of Education, the standardized CASAS (Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System) test is used to assess English skill development for participants. In the first year, more than half of the participants have met the benchmarks on the CASAS test, as established by the California Department of Education's Adult Education Services. A benchmark equals at least a three-point gain in English proficiency on the test.

Alternative assessments developed to correlate with the workbook are also used to gauge English acquisition and have documented improved skills. Further, it has been noted that attendance rates in Talking with the Police is higher than those observed in standard ESL classes that do not focus on a particular topic.

Law Enforcement Knowledge: The student self-assessment portion of the pretest and the posttest suggests that the program is effective in helping adults to gain an understanding of law enforcement. The assessment lists twelve statements that reflect topics covered in the class. Students score themselves on a scale of 1-10 (where 1 is "a little" and 10 is "a lot"). Of the first 75 students completing the assessment, all indicated some improvement in each of the areas. They scored themselves as gaining an average of 3.9 to 5.7 points on each of the 12 items:

  • How to recognize an officer

  • What to do when an officer stops you

  • How to report a traffic crash

  • How and when to call 911

  • What happens when you call 911

  • How to report a crime

  • What to do to help prevent a crime

  • What to do about domestic violence

  • What your rights are if you are arrested

  • What to do if a police officer is rude to you

  • How to get information about laws

  • How to file a complaint with the police department

Other goals and byproducts of the program are observed and expressed in anecdotal evidence but are not so easily measurable.

Learners Are Motivated: The program is effective in motivating limited English speakers to continue to improve their skills. The interest in the topic brings out not only newcomers but also adults who have lived in the community for many years but do not understand law enforcement procedures. For instance, one man had lived in the city for 30 years but reported he only gained understanding about the use of 911 for emergencies after participation in the program. Another resident of more than 20 years stated this was her first formal English class. She had learned minimal English from informal settings at her workplace. After completion of the class, she continued her enrollment in an ESL class at the adult school.

Talking with the Police was so well received by the Chinese community that the Community Relations Bureau created a citizens' academy conducted in Chinese. It is based on the material covered in the workbook, particularly the Chinese translations, and is taught by a Chinese-speaking officer.

Officers Gain Experience: Just as the limited English speakers are becoming more comfortable with police officers, the officers are becoming more comfortable with limited English speakers. Their questions and comments give the officers insight to the fears and misunderstandings shared by the immigrant population. It helps to sensitize officers to language issues and misunderstandings, and develops the understanding for the need of more patience with the immigrant residents to understand and respond to the officers.

Program Offered to Departments
Locally, Talking with the Police is offered twice a year. Care was taken during the development of the curriculum to include only information that is true throughout the country, not that which varies from state to state. This makes duplication of the program viable for other communities throughout the United States.

Talking with the Police materials are available for easy duplication. Interested departments can purchased the program on a CD-ROM for a minimal fee, or download the program free of charge from the California Department of Education, through the Outreach and Technical Assistance Network at (registration required). ■

For more information, write to Sergeant Brent Archibald, Monterey Park Police Department, 320 West Newmark Avenue, Monterey Park, CA 91754; call him at 626-307-1200; send a fax to him at 626-307-1468; or send an e-mail message to (



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 6, June 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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