The night Kevin Torres was shot and killed in Highlandtown, his sister-in-law dialed 911 for help.

“Hello, I speak Spanish,” she can be heard saying frantically in a recording of the call. Within 25 seconds, the 911 operator looped in an interpreter through Language Line, a telephone interpretation service the city has used for years. The 911 operator told the interpreter, Raúl, to ask for the address of the emergency.

“There’s people yelling in the back,” Raúl said, sounding confused. To the 911 specialist, he asked, “Why did you field me?”

“Please call an ambulance,” the sister-in-law pleaded in Spanish.

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“Is someone hurt?” Raúl asked her.

Her brother-in-law had been shot near South Haven Street, she said several times during the 3-minute call and asked for an ambulance. Growing desperate, the woman’s voice rose as the interpreter struggled to understand her, although it is unclear why.

Though the interpreter was able to tell the dispatcher an ambulance was needed, Torres died at the scene before it arrived.

As the Latino population grows in Baltimore, the city is increasingly dealing with language barriers that make it hard to provide city services, communicate with parents and guardians at schools and, in the most desperate scenarios, communicate effectively during emergencies, as with the Highlandtown woman.

Community organizations, many in Southeast Baltimore, have historically filled the gaps, acting as a quasi branch of government as they walk families through rent, electric bills and food stamps. But community advocates are increasingly pressing city officials to hire more Spanish-speakers, calling it a matter of equity. As Baltimore’s overall population declines and the Latino population has grown, advocates say, they must help the newcomers adapt and thrive.

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Almost a year since advocates took the issue to city councilmembers, the city is making progress. At a hearing on the subject in October, the City Council passed a bill requiring departments to hire more Spanish speakers, a move Councilmember Odette Ramos, Baltimore’s first elected person of Latin American descent, repeatedly called “historic.”

During that hearing, a Baltimore City Public Schools spokesperson said the system is “exclusively recruiting” teachers from Spanish-speaking countries, including Colombia. Tenea Reddick, the city’s 911 director, said the office partnered with Convey911, a company that uses artificial intelligence to allow the caller and the 911 specialist to message in real time without a third party.

Addressing and changing city services to meet the demands of a growing non-English-speaking population requires a collaboration of government and community efforts, said Catalina Rodriguez Lima, who has directed the mayor’s office of immigrant affairs since 2014.

“This is also work that was happening prior to government taking notice,” she said. “So we’re here to build, to stand on the shoulders of many people who had been doing this work for us.”

She added that this work is important to “give people reasons to remain in our city … not just moving to Baltimore, but staying here because they have opportunities that they’re not afforded anywhere else in the state.”

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A decade ago, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake proposed welcoming immigrant families to the city — 10,000 of them, to be exact — as a remedy to Baltimore’s dwindling population.

But it has been a challenge to focus on interpretation and translation services at the same rate as Spanish-speaking families have settled in the city.

Rodriguez says lack of dedicated staff and other resources made it difficult until 2018, when her office hired a contractor to serve as the language access coordinator. But then there was the pandemic lockdown, and the focus turned to providing COVID-19 information in several languages. Furthering language access for other areas was put on pause.

It was like “drinking from a firehose,” Rodriguez said. Whatever information the state released needed to be quickly translated.

But the public-health emergency also shed light on the existing network of resources for non-English speakers, especially from Latin America, and the trust and dependence families had on them. The city used funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to partner with several community organizations, including Southeast CDC and Esperanza Center, which help families navigate services. The program and its coordinator will work through October. The city recently approved funding for somebody full-time after that.

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Still, there is room for improvement, advocates said.

Once the second coordinator is hired, the mayor’s office of immigrant affairs will work toward shifting its focus to accountability. In Maryland, there’s no entity that monitors state agencies to ensure that they are providing these services.

The state also does not investigate complaints related to the issue, said Ashley Black, the lead attorney for the Public Justice Center’s health and benefits equity project. Advocates end up filing administrative complaints with the federal government, a process that can take months, even a year, Black said.

“We shouldn’t have gaps in the system at this stage because these are not new requirements,” she said, referring to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires programs that receive federal funds to make their programs and services accessible to people with limited English proficiency.

These requirements, she added, “have been around for decades.”

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State delegates, including those representing Baltimore, have tried to require the Maryland Commission of Civil Rights to oversee, monitor, investigate and enforce provisions related to language access through legislation that hasn’t successfully passed.

The need for benefit assistance for non-English speakers in Baltimore has existed for years, said Kate Jakuta, who works at Southeast CDC. The organization works with families who are at risk of losing their houses, but their case managers often receive calls about other needs, such as SNAP benefits and Medicaid.

Jakuta and other community advocates said many local government officials do not provide interpreters, even though law requires them to. At other times, immigrant families are turned away and told they were not eligible — and sometimes that was just not true.

Another community advocate recalled one of her clients whose appointment was canceled by the state health department because she didn’t speak English and there was no one who could help her.

It’s “more common than we want it to be,” said Guadalupe Espino Molina, who works at Esperanza Center, historically a haven for immigrants looking for help with public services.

During the October hearing, Lisa Allen, who heads the 311 center, which takes non-emergency call from residents, said a Spanish-language version of the 311 app would be ready by the end of the year. That did not happen.

Bryan Doherty, the director of communications for the mayor’s office, said in a statement that development of the app is underway and will likely be operational later this spring.

“The 311 team is also working with our MIMA office to development a communications and outreach plan that will help get the word out to our Spanish-speaking communities once the updated app is ready,” he added.

For decades, the norm of the 911 emergency system has been to use a third-party, human-based interpreter service that is conferenced in to the call, said Chris Drew from Convey911. Historically, agencies have been hesitant in using technology, mainly due to the lack of certification that is required for interpreters, Drew said. The federal guidance for translations, for example, has been against the use of “web-based automated translation to translate documents,” according to a 2015 notice from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning allows Convey911 to use different applications, which makes the translation more accurate and seamless. Now the company is working on technology that will transcribe and translate a 911 call in real time, so that the operator can also talk back and the technology will program their voice into the caller’s language.

“With the emergence of AI and machine learning, we’re able to not just have the translation come from one single point, but from multiple points at the same time,” he said.

Drew and Jeff Bruns, co-founder of the company, have years of experience in public safety as firefighters, Drew said. They are well aware of the complaints with Language Line, particularly that interpreters may not understand public safety. And they know the consequences can be dire.

“The degree that they [the call taker] identify urgency in the caller, and the information that’s provided by the caller, has a huge impact in the way that they actually code the call and then, in turn, has a huge impact in the way that a police officer who responds behaves and the choices that they make,” said Greg Midgette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland. “So there’s potentially huge, huge implications for having better information or being able to identify and classify the information provided by the 911 caller and toward the way that the incident gets resolved.”

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR. 

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