To Protect, Serve and Understand
The United States of America has always been a land of immigrants, due in part to the great opportunities this country offers. But globalization, and an increase of immigration, has greatly increased the number of residents who have Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Twenty percent of our population speaks a foreign language at home and over 25 million are LEP.
How can law enforcement better protect and serve these diverse communities and keep themselves safer? One answer is better access and utilization of qualified interpreters when dealing with the public. Let’s review some benefits.
Clear Communication Protects Officers and Citizens
Total understanding between law enforcement personnel and community members can be essential to making sure everyone knows what is happening in a quickly developing situation.
Officers may ask, “What help will an interpreter be able to give in a situation where a life and death decision can happen in a fraction of a second?” Interpreters are tools of communication.
They are there to assist when communicating with the public. These interactions may range from assisting someone who has locked their keys in the car, to witnesses who can provide information about a subject, incident, or even tactical information. When people are clearly able to understand law enforcement, and the information they provide is clearly understood, mistakes are less likely to occur.
Clear Communication Improves Community Relations
Immigrants and refugees are often at different stages in learning English, and using an interpreter when speaking with immigrant communities shows that leaders respect their culture and have taken extra steps to ensure understanding. Seemingly small gestures like this send a big message and improve community relations.
Clear Communication Closes Cases
While some officers are multilingual, their language skills are often untested. A professional interpreter is trained to clarify ambiguous statements in a transparent and neutral manner. In this way the interpreter can often tease out nuanced meaning and notice cues that those with less training will miss. These cues and the information they contain may be the difference that helps investigators solve the case.
It’s also true that language interpretation can have a major impact on the psychology of a witness or subject. Dealing with an expert speaker will not only make the situation more familiar to them, and therefore less stressful, they will understand that the interpretation of their words is reliable. An LEP person who knows they will be able to express themselves accurately will be more likely to do so.
Interpreters Ensure Impartiality
When dealing with immigrant communities, officers often find themselves relying on family members to help them communicate with LEP persons. In some cases, a person with a strong bias or even a desire to protect a family member from legal jeopardy is in a position to change, filter, or discard important information.
Another problem with interpretation by family members is that children are often the most proficient English speakers in a family. In addition to the issues mentioned above, a child may not completely understand the role of police or the situation at hand, and involvement in an investigation may subject them to trauma, long term stresses, and situations that are inappropriate for a child.
Interpreters are likely to appear impartial to the interviewee as well. This allows them to explain the role and aims of police. Immigrants may have arrived from countries where police are a threat or where bribing officers is common. An impartial interpreter can inform officers to explain the role of the neutral interpreter and allow police to introduce themselves and ensure the interviewee knows that the goal is information.
Local Interpreters Provide the Clearest Communication
Just as an officer who knows their city well is a more effective investigator, the rendition of local interpreters is often more effective because of their knowledge of the area and its communities.
Imagine, for instance, if a subject mentions traveling from one part of the city to another. For a phone or video interpreter in another state or country, these simple place names may cause confusion.
For a local interpreter, these are places he or she knows. This added knowledge makes it more likely that the information that comes out of an interview will be accurate and makes it far less likely that there is misinterpretation due to the language barrier.