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DOJ Settles With Pennsylvania City Over Language Barrier

Eleanor Klibanoff
Keystone Crossroads

A Pennsylvania police department will be required to take steps to remove language barriers faced by the city’s large Spanish-speaking population under a U.S. Justice Department settlement announced Tuesday.

The Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation of the Hazleton Police Department after a resident with limited English proficiency reported having to rely on his young son and a co-worker to be able to communicate with officers. An administrative complaint filed with the Justice Department alleged that Hazleton police did not provide “meaningful access to their services."

Under the settlement, the police department will update its operating procedures to require “appropriate language assistance” to people who don't speak English. The city, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia, will also print forms and notices in English and Spanish, mandate training for all staff and make efforts to increase the recruitment and hiring of bilingual officers.

Hazleton’s Hispanic population has swelled from less than 5% in 2000 to nearly 60% of the population of about 25,000 today.

“Timely and accurate communication between limited English proficient residents and police officers is essential to public safety,” Kristen M. Clarke, assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “The changes required by this agreement will benefit crime victims and witnesses, but also help police officers do their jobs."

The city's police chief, Brian Schoonmaker, did not return phone and email messages seeking comment. The Community Justice Project, a nonprofit legal assistance group that filed the complaint on behalf of the unnamed resident, declined comment.

The settlement resolves the DOJ probe. It did not require Hazleton to admit wrongdoing, and the city and police department denied liability.

The city drew national notoriety 15 years ago for its then-mayor's efforts to combat illegal immigration on the municipal level, which inspired similar efforts around the country. A series of federal courts ruled against Mayor Lou Barletta's 2006 immigration ordinances, and they were never enforced. Barletta later served four terms in Congress and recently announced a runfor governor.

Updated: June 2, 2021 at 6:14 AM EDT
Updated to include more details on the settlement.