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How Language Training Is Helping Police Officers in Houston’s Chinatown

The first officers have completed their Mandarin class with the University of St. Thomas


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We recently reported on the Houston Police Department's partnership with the University of St. Thomas for Chinese language training for its officers.

After the first 10 weeks of classes for 25 officers, we wanted to see how the training is helping cops in the field.

So, we went on a ride-along with one officer who took the class, Michael Prause, a 26-year veteran at HPD's Westside Station, which covers Houston's Chinatown.

Prause works in HPD's Differential Response Team. Officers in that unit check up on potentially shady businesses, something patrol officers don't have the time to do.

"It's hard to get a hold of an actual physical person that you can either write a citation to or arrest in some instances," Prause said. "That's kind of our job, that's kind of our forte where we go out and we actually track down who the people are that actually are responsible for that location."

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On the city's Westside, a lot of those locations are massage parlors. On our ride, we pass dozens of them. Some may be brothels in disguise, but Prause said most often the issue is problems with the permit.

The majority of the massage parlors in this area are run by Chinese, he said. That was the main reason why he took the class.

"When you walk in, they speak no English or they tell us they speak no English," Prause said. "And so this is kind of a way for us, just kind of break the ice, if you will, and kind of talk to them and hopefully have them build a little trust in us."

For more detailed conversations, HPD has a language line that can get a speaker of any language needed on the phone.

Like in the rest of the country, Asians are the fastest growing population group in Houston. According to the latest estimates by the Census Bureau, 6.7 percent of Houstonians are Asians – compared to 5.9 percent in 2010.

After Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese are the most widely spoken foreign languages here.

The Chinese class for Houston's police originated with the University of St. Thomas and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.

Li-Ya Mar was the teacher in that first 10-week, 15-hour session and covered "all of the survival or the most basic terms like traffic stops, weapons hostile situations, immigration airport usages, security issues and all of that," she said.

The officers don't learn how to write Chinese and the class is focused on key words and phrases like "gun," "knife" or "drop the weapon."

"Just really basic ones," Mar said. "I tried to keep it really short so that all these officers, it's easier for them to remember and also identify those phrases."

The next term starts this fall. It will go more into detail for the daily tasks the officers do every day, depending on their beat.

Hans Stockton, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of St. Thomas, said he hopes to expand the program beyond HPD.

"A long-term goal is to serve the first responder market more broadly throughout Houston and Harris County," he said. "And that includes fire department, paramedics, constables, sheriff as well as police departments."

The concept is unique among major U.S. cities. And it's paid for with donations. Stockton said the plan is to establish a foundation to receive grants for a future expansion.

This fall, the program will also provide officers with a multi-cultural awareness training.

"We help officers identify certain culturally specific behaviors in forms of communication, conflict resolution processes that might be different from what they've grown up here in Houston, Texas, or the United States," Stockton said.

Back in the police cruiser, officer Prause said learning Chinese helps build trust when people realize he took the time to learn how to speak their language.

"Some countries that you go to, they don't trust the police," he said. "The police will take their money, the police will take their profits."

And in a city as diverse as Houston, a little trust can certainly help.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is the News 88.7 business reporter and also covers criminal justice, guns and shootings.Florian's stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of...

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