911 interpreter violated protocols when Hispanic man called after he was shot, paralyzed in New Orleans

Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 11:49 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 23, 2023 at 10:25 AM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Since the fall of 2022, Arquimedes Diaz and his girlfriend Maria Martinez have had to journey from their Marrero home to the University Medical Center across the river once a week.

It’s a challenge to fit Diaz’s wheelchair, mounting board and other necessities into their aging Toyota Camry, especially since Diaz is paralyzed from the waist down.

With each visit, Martinez wheels Diaz to physical therapy with the hopes that the muscles he can move will get stronger and thus, help him be more self-sufficient. The trips from the Westbank to the Eastbank is a routine the young couple was not ready for but have been forced to embrace after Diaz was shot in his shoulder and through his back.

The tragedy happened late at night on Aug. 13. Diaz says he was in his Camry, enjoying some time off after he got home from his construction job.

“I was outside of my apartment, listening to music, Face Timing my girlfriend,” Diaz said.

He was new to his apartments in the 3300 block of Garden Oaks Drive in Algiers. He hadn’t yet memorized his address or any of the stores nearby. So it was a shock when two people started walking up to him in the middle of the night.

Diaz says he felt uneasy about the situation and hung up his video call with Martinez to head inside his apartment. But before that could happen, he says the two people shot at him, hitting him twice.

“I don’t know why it happened, who did it. I don’t know anything,” he said.

The NOPD says no suspects have been named or arrests have been made in connection with the shooting that has left Diaz unable to work and provide for his loved ones how he wants to.

He prays for justice, or at least a reason why the shooting happened, as he goes to his weekly rehab.

“We are trying to use the muscles that he does have, while trying to be able to maximize his independence and his functional mobility,” UMC physical therapist Mary Ann Marius said.

Despite a language barrier, Diaz, a native Spanish speaker from Mexico, can communicate with his doctors through a live interpreter service offered at UMC. He’s able to ask questions and get answers while the medical staff encourages him through his sessions.

He says the service is easy and convenient, but the same can’t be said for the service he was met with while on the phone with 911 after being shot.

Diaz says he doesn’t remember much of the call, but he does remember getting transferred to a three-way call with a 911 operator and an interpreter.

FOX 8 obtained the audio and could hear the operator transfer in an interpreter with the company Voiance after the operator identified Diaz was speaking Spanish.

“You can hear the ringing where the call taker conferenced in the interpreter and identified the language. Spanish was it and within seconds, a Spanish interpreter was on the line. That is standard on a daily basis,” Orleans Parish Communication District (OPCD) Executive Director Tyrell Morris said.

An official with OPCD says out of the 1.2 million 911 calls in 2022, 5,396 involved non-English speaking people. Morris says all those calls started the same way as Diaz’s.

It took a minute into the call until Diaz could communicate his dire situation. But despite the interpreter asking him for his address multiple times, he could not say where he was.

According to the incident report, police were en route to the 3800 block of Garden Oaks Drive around a minute and four seconds after the call started. Morris said the 911 Center could also track Diaz’s location through his phone.

However, the operator kept questioning Diaz about his address, even though Diaz said, at the time, he was too shocked by all the blood in his car and being paralyzed to answer clearly.

“I kept asking them to send help. I’ve been shot,” Diaz said. “I remember I opened my door to try and scream for help, but no one was around me.”

To add to the emergency response frustrations, Diaz says he kept passing out in the car and the 911 operator had to keep calling back to keep him on the line.

It wasn’t until 10 minutes and 20 seconds into the call that the interpreter could tell Diaz that help was coming. Still, after multiple callbacks and issues with nailing down his location during the phone call, the interpreter thought Diaz’s story wasn’t adding up.

“He is telling you a different story every time,” the interpreter tells the 911 operator. “He’s acting ma’am. He said first he was at the apartment and then he didn’t know the address and he is new there. That’s kind of weird.”

The interpreter spent more than a minute telling the 911 operator that Diaz may be faking his story. But at 12 minutes and 40 seconds into the call, NOPD was able to find him.

When we played the interpreter’s comments to Diaz and his girlfriend, they were both speechless.

“I am in total shock right now. I can’t even talk,” he said.

“I am very speechless. If the 911 operator would have cut that call short you know, ‘Ok this is not an emergency. This is just a prank.’ He would’ve just died there,” Martinez said.

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New Orleans city council member Helena Moreno, who is bilingual, echoed those statements.

“Listening to this entire call, understanding English, understanding Spanish, there was not once in mind where I thought, ‘Hey I think this guy could potentially be lying,’” Moreno said. “There needs to be a major investigation into what happened with this situation, and I wonder why we have this particular company employed right now if this is how they operate.”

Morris said the interpreter’s actions did not meet OPCD standards.

“I was a little disappointed in the re-questioning. I was a little disappointed in the interpreter not asking what the call taker told her to ask,” he said. “And because of your inquiry, I have asked my command staff to do an assessment of the vendor.”

While the 911 Center is looking into other concerning calls done under Voiance, which has rebranded to CyraCom International, the company says they have already taken action.

In a statement, spokesperson Daniel Roper said:

After obtaining a recording of the 9-1-1 call from NOPD, we found that the interpreter’s actions during this call violated our company’s training and interpretation protocols. This interpreter has not been employed by Voiance since November 2022.

OPCD says it pays monthly invoices to the interpreter company ranging from $22,000 to $30,000 a year.

CyraCom International’s website says all interpreters are vetted, screened and tested for being bilingual. They are also supposed to be specialized to handle several emergency calls, including assisting in finding an address.

Morris says despite the inquiry into Voicance, the interpreters often break language barriers in a way that no one at the 911 center is trained to do.

When asked if the 911 Center employed bilingual people, Morris said, “No, because we have the service. We also have to make sure the individuals that are translating, particularly in a public safety space, are certified. We have the ability to qualify their competency in the language. So outsourcing that to a third party, which is standard in a 911 center of this size, it really ensures that the individuals providing that service are credentialed to do so.”

Over the past five years, FOX 8 looked into violent crimes ranging from armed robbery to homicides to carjackings among non-English speaking victims. Eighty-nine percent of those crimes were reported by Spanish-speaking victims.

Morris was asked if that statistic encourages him to hire in-house bilingual staff, saying, “I don’t think hiring a call taker to answer the phone is going to speed up the process. Our call takers don’t get to pick and choose what call they answer. Also, the 911 system doesn’t know what language you speak when you dial the digits. If you get a call taker that doesn’t speak that language that process will still be the same.”

Morris says to get by without bilingual staff members, the 911 Center taps into the Office of Public Engagement and the city’s language access program. Moreno thinks New Orleans can do more using the Hispanic task force, a regionwide task force initially designed for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You brought up an issue where once again this task force is needed. Not only because some need assistance with outreach but also for a bit of an oversight group so we can be aware of different situations like this one and push for these issues to be resolved,” she said.

Due to a number of reports about the 911 center, Moreno has called on OPCD to provide the council with steps to fix and prevent future issues, saying “mistakes of this magnitude are potentially fatal.”

As the city looks into Voiance, Diaz continues his rehab, hoping Latinos in the city, who don’t speak English, have the life-saving resources they need.

“We need to see more people who are able to speak Spanish. We need that kind of help because speaking English is difficult for a lot of us,” he said.

If you want to help Diaz as he manages to pay for medical expenses, you can donate to his GoFundMe page.

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