Computer translation devices help bridge language barrier
By JAMES HANNAH
Associated Press Writer
SPRINGFIELD, OH (AP): Sheriff's deputies will soon begin using handheld computers that translate police phrases into Spanish to help communication with the area’s growing Latino community.
“Our challenge right now is Spanish, talking to our Latino community,” said Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly. “There are so many things where a language barrier could cost someone their life.”
Use of the translation devices is spreading around the country. Law enforcement and other agencies are using them in Illinois, Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Clark County will be the first sheriff's office in the state to use the device, according to Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association. Cornwell predicted that more sheriff's offices will begin using the devices and hiring more officers who speak second languages.
About 2,000 Latinos lived in Springfield’s Clark County in 2004, up from 1,700 in 2000 and 970 in 1990.
Kelly said he came to realize speaking different languages could hamper investigating crimes, identifying suspects and rescuing people in emergency situations.
The sheriff matched a $4,600 grant from the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services to buy four of the devices and plans to put them in patrol cars, the dispatch center and the jail.
Carleton Moore, executive director of the criminal-justice office, said about 56 languages are spoken in Ohio.
“Language barriers can hinder criminal cases and endanger officers, victims, witnesses, and perpetrators,” Moore said, adding that the device is a first step in addressing the issue.
The handheld computer, about the size of a brick, stores common law-enforcement phrases in different languages. The phrases are prerecorded by a native speaker so they are clearly understood.
The device also will translate from English-to-Spanish phrases that are spoken into it. It does not translate the answers law enforcers receive, so officers are encouraged to pick phrases that can be answered with a yes or no or a nod or gesture.
The $2,300 device, made by Annapolis, Md.-based VoxTec International, can be programmed with multiple languages and is being used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Police in Fort Wayne, Ind., have been using translation devices for about three years. Lt. Michael McQueen said the computers have been especially helpful in making sure that people who are questioned by police understand their legal rights.
“They give the officer control in a situation,” McQueen said. “It gives them more confidence in dealing with a non-English speaking person. They know that what they're saying is being adequately translated.”
Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of Latin American Citizens, said the devices might be useful but the best thing police agencies can do is teach officers Spanish or hire officers who speak the language.
Kelly said he and 18 of his officers are taking Spanish lessons.
“Knowing there is that effort and support to better communicate with the Latin American community, it is the first step toward something very positive,” said Maria Messer, program director for Casa Amiga, a group that promotes communication between Springfield-area Latinos and police, businesses, health-care workers and social-service agencies.
Aurelio Flores, a 27-year-old from México who lives in Springfield, said he speaks only a little English and that communicating with the police is difficult.
“This will be good,” he said of the translation computers.
McQueen of Fort Wayne said police must be aware of nuances in foreign languages that can sometimes change words’ meaning.
He said authorities once posted signs in a city park written in Spanish they thought notified parkgoers that undercover police officers on patrol. It turned out the signs actually read: “You may encounter naked policemen in the park.”
Editor’s Note: The enlightened approach taken by Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly is in contrast to the draconian and racially-tainted missteps of Sheriff Richard K. “Illegal Aliens Here” Jones of Butler County, Ohio. Danny Contreras, who ran for Lucas County sheriff in 2004, recommended the use of such translation devices. Contreras is currently the president of the Lucas County Democratic Hispanic/Latino Caucus. See on the net: Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services: http://www.publicsafety.ohio.gov/ocjs/ocjs_home.asp; League of Latin American Citizens: http://www.lulac.org/; VoxTec: http://www.phraselator.com/; and http://www.butlersheriff.org/geninfo/news/news_undocumented_aliens.htm.