‘Speakie Spannie?’

The Perils of Latinos Trapped in NYPD Telephone Hell

If you are Latino, don't speak English, and call a New York Police Department precinct for help, you may be ridiculed, treated shabbily, discriminated against, or left at the mercy of your potential assailant. That is the conclusion of a study by the Equalizer Foundation, a group of current and former law-enforcement officers led by William L. Acosta, an ex-NYPD Internal Affairs investigator. The nearly month-long study inflamed raw tensions between the Equalizers' "integrity testers" and combative cops.

When some officers weren't mimicking callers, saying, "You speakie Spannie, you speakie Spannie," others were passing them off to colleagues ("Here, talk to this clown") and cracking racist jokes, according to a transcript of the study's recorded conversations. Based on the group's investigations, the Internal Affairs Bureau has been looking into allegations that nonchalant cops at the 115th Precinct station house in Queens mishandled a complaint by a non-English-speaking Colombian immigrant who subsequently was shot to death by her crazed boyfriend.

"The policy of this department is to stress the principles of Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect," said Sergeant Andrew McInnis, an NYPD spokesperson. "CPR is working."

The Equalizer: William Acosta
photo: Michael Sofronski
The Equalizer: William Acosta

CPR apparently wasn't working early one morning last December in the Midtown South station house, headquarters of one of the busiest police precincts in Manhattan. The phone had been ringing off the hook—25 times by William Acosta's count. Acosta hung up and redialed, but as in his 40 other failed attempts to reach out to a Spanish-speaking officer, he got a recorded greeting in English, and finally a police officer who seemed to compare him to that incoherent talking chihuahua in the Taco Bell commercial.

Acosta, posing as a puzzled Latino caller, asked a police officer who eventually answered the phone what time he could call back to speak to a Latino cop. Three p.m., was the brusque reply from the representative of the "Finest," who would later identify himself as "Police Officer Dwyer." He chided the Colombian-born private investigator for asking him what time it was—and then hung up. Acosta redialed. At that point, he was immune to rude cops.

Between December 10, 1999, and January 4, the Equalizer Foundation and the Police Complaint Center, headed by Richard Rivera, made 49 calls to 34 precincts throughout the five boroughs. According to a draft report entitled "A Study of Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect: Telephone Responses to Latinos by the NYPD," 33 calls were answered by male officers and 15 by females. One call allegedly went unanswered "after several reasonable attempts." Only four Spanish-speaking officers answered calls, and Spanish-speaking personnel assisted Latino callers in 26 cases. Non-Spanish-speaking personnel assisted Latino callers 22 times, the study found.

In 10 cases, according to a transcript, non-Spanish-speaking personnel told the caller to call back during periods ranging from 10 minutes to the next day. In six instances, English-speaking officers determined the calls were not emergencies and hung up four times. In eight cases, callers were given numbers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board and directed to call the agency. The phone number for the Internal Affairs Bureau was given six times. The Equalizers, whose ultimate goal is to get nearly 40,000 police officers to be more civil, professional, and courteous, claimed that officers ridiculed callers in four cases. Only eight officers, the report concluded, followed department policy regarding the handling of complaints by non-English-speaking New Yorkers.

It was now 8 a.m. In Acosta's second attempt to strike a more responsive chord with cops at the Midtown South station house, he again encountered Officer Dwyer.

"Me call, you hang up," the former undercover cop and customs agent complained. His broken English was grating, even to the point of annoying. It seemed like Dwyer would see right through Acosta's act.

"That's the worst Spanish accent ever," Dwyer told Acosta, who is also fluent in English, Portuguese, and German. "You sound Chinese, almost. You know that. . . you sound Chinese. Try to get a Spanish accent, you're sounding Chinese." Acosta insisted that he was Spanish and kept haranguing Dwyer to provide him with an officer who spoke Spanish.

" Eso si que es!" (Yes, this is it) Dwyer said.

" Que?" Acosta inquired.

" Eso si que es!" repeated Dwyer, who then put Acosta on hold. Acosta said that he stayed on the line for about four minutes before hanging up and redialing. This time the phone rang 23 times. He hung up, redialed, was greeted by the recording, then by Dwyer.

"Eso si que es!" Dwyer said. Acosta asked to speak to a sergeant.

"What sergeant?" Dywer retorted. The sound of muffled laughter was audible in the background. "Hello," Dwyer continued, "you want the sergeant? What time is it, do you know?" He put Acosta on hold. Someone who claimed to be the sergeant took Acosta's call. But the Equalizer insisted on talking to a cop who spoke Spanish.

"Nobody here!" the sergeant claimed.

"Me want complain officer," Acosta said.

"Yeah, hold on," the cop responded. Acosta's call was transferred to a female officer.

"I do not speak Spanish," she said. "I speak English." Tired of being passed around in the cops' telephone relay, Acosta demanded to speak to Officer Dwyer. But for any face-to-face with Dwyer, Acosta was informed, he would have to come to the station house. Acosta called back. Dwyer answered. Now Acosta wanted to file a complaint against a bad cop. Dwyer and other officers in the background erupted in uproarious giggles.

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