One creative approach to breaking down language barriers

For officers responding to calls, unless there is a translator nearby or the officer speaks the foreign language, valuable time and critical information can be lost

How many times have you responded to a call and the victim does not speak your language? My only language is English and this has happened far too many times. During my tenure at the Broward Sheriff’s Office in Fort Lauderdale, I was assigned to the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport as a detective and to the Port Everglades Seaport as a patrol supervisor. These are international hubs for people on business and vacation from all corners of the world. In fact, the seaport has almost 50,000 people passing through the gates three or four times a week.

When a call comes through our dispatch center and the dispatch has difficulty understanding the person due to the caller’s poor of English, they have the ability to have the phone company join the call via the language line. Together critical information can be obtained.

Unfortunately for the officer out on the streets and responding to calls, unless there is a translator nearby or the officer speaks the foreign language, valuable time and critical information can be lost.

Applying Occam's Razor
I became frustrated by my inability to communicate with victims and my failure to understand what crime was committed and having the investigation become a game of charades. To facilitate communications in these situations, I created a two-page form using NCR (carbonless) paper that would assist in gathering essential information to begin an investigation.

The top page of the form would be a language other than English, possibly Spanish, French, German, etc, one language per form. The form would be handed to the victim and they would complete the form by answering questions by marking a check next to the correct answer. Questions on the form would be easy to complete, such as:

A.) “Are you the victim of a robbery, theft, lost property?”
B.) “What property was taken?”

The victim would read the question in their native language and provide as much basic information as possible. The check marks would be copied to the bottom sheet of the form via the NCR paper. The bottom sheet would be the English translation of the top page questions. The victim then would sign the form and return it to the officer — the same basic concept as most traffic ticket forms.

Now the officer can read the English page and have a general idea as to the crime committed, any suspect information, including vehicles, what was taken and a time frame of the crime. Without this information, the suspect could be standing nearby and the officer would never know that.

World Community Policing
I presented this form to my department’s Research and Development Division and subsequently a number of agencies have adopted it.

This was world community policing at its finest. Tourists in a strange land are often victims of crimes due to factors such as getting lost, scams and excitement of being on vacation. While we make every attempt to prevent crime, crimes still happen. Now there is a tool that helps in the recovery of items taken, and apprehension of the perpetrators. An additional asset is that fact of presenting the original signed copy in court to assist in the conviction of the suspect.

The form has improved the image the traveling public has pertaining to law enforcement. Presenting this form to a victim coupled with a concerned attitude goes a long way. As I told my officers working at the airport and seaport, the first and last person someone sees is the uniform officer. Let’s make their stay in our country one of pleasant memories.

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