Topper questions why traffic warning letters only in English

Vancouver City Councilor Alishia Topper asked City Manager Eric Holmes why the Vancouver Police Department would send a warning letter in English to a couple who aren’t fluent in the language.

Because, as it turns out, the letter was sent to the registered owner of the vehicle after the license plate had been reported. I think we can all agree the police department shouldn’t start guessing what language people speak based on their surnames.

A May 27 email from Topper to Holmes: 

Thank you for including Council on this correspondence. Monday night I was
walking through the Historic Reserve and encountered an hispanic couple
outside of the Police Admin Building, it was after 7 p.m. and they were hoping
to find answers to a letter they received from our police department. It looked as
though they were pulled over and later sent a letter that was in english and there
was obviously a disconnect in what was being asked of them. Do you know if
those that are primarily spanish speaking and are pulled over and either given a
warning or citation receive follow-up correspondence from our department in
written form that they can read and understand?
I felt terrible that I didn’t know where to direct them for answers and this email
made me think of the language and cultural barrier that must be felt by those in
situations where they are unable to fully comprehend the circumstances. Living
in Mexico for six months as an exchange student makes me sensitive to this
matter. Thank you again and I look forward to an update once you have an
opportunity to visit with the Chief.

Holmes promised Topper he would be meeting soon with Chief James McElvain and he would ask him about the letter.  Here’s a May 31 email from McElvain to Holmes: 

“Hi Eric,
(Assistant Chief Mike) Lester made contact with Council Member Topper to get clarification regarding the content of the correspondence she saw. Based on this conversation and further internal discussion, we believe the letter the Hispanic couple had was a Stop Paddle Violation Letter (see attached sample). The letter also comes with a WA Traffic Safety Commission brochure titled “Stop for the School Bus.” VPD Traffic works with the School Districts to send this information out to help educate citizens that are observed violating the Stop Paddle by the school bus operators.
If you should need any further information, please let me know.
Take care,

And Holmes’ response to Topper: 

“Alishia –
Please see below. Just to follow up, these types of letters are sent based solely on license plate, so the city would have no way of knowing of potential language barriers.
Please let me know any addition questions of concerns.”

Here’s a sample Stop Paddle Violation letter: 

May 29, 2014

(Name of registered owner)

It has been reported to this office that a person operating a vehicle displaying the vehicle license plate of (license plate number) which is registered in your name, failed to observe the following law: RCW 46.61.370, Overtaking or Meeting of a School Bus, which states:
The driver of a vehicle upon overtaking or meeting from either direction any school bus which has stopped on the roadway for the purpose of receiving or discharging any school children shall stop the vehicle before reaching such school bus when there is in operation on said school bus a visual signal as specified in RCW 46.37.190 and said driver shall not proceed until such school bus resumes motion or the visual signals are no longer activated.

The reported incident occurred on Monday, April 14th, 2014 at approximately 3:00 PM in the area of NE 103rd Ave. and NE 35th St.

Although this alleged violation may have been unintentional, the passing of a school bus while in the process of loading or unloading children creates a potentially dangerous situation. When traveling either direction on an undivided road, the law requires all vehicles to stop for such a bus that is stopped with flashing red lights activated and/or a stop sign extended.
Be advised that this letter is NOT a citation; however, if these violations had been observed by a police officer, the driver would have likely been issued a Notice of Infraction with an associated fine of $394.00.
There is no need for you to respond to this letter. It is merely one way of increasing community awareness about important traffic safety issues and keeping the streets of Vancouver safe.
Thank you for your time, and please drive safe.
Patrick Johns
Sgt. Traffic Division
Vancouver Police Department Traffic Unit





Stephanie Rice

Stephanie Rice

I cover Vancouver city government. Reach me at or 360-735-4508.

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