LANGUAGE BARRIER: Translators Help Police

Special Reports
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Des Moines residents speak at least 40 different languages. That diversity can create a diverse problem for law enforcement.

Protecting and serving can be difficult for a police officer if he or she can’t communicate with citizens.

It’s always a busy day at the Des Moines Police Department, in 2011 alone, dispatchers answered 233,000 calls.

In just 19-months on the job,  Dispatcher Mindy O’Donnell has handled calls ranging from shoplifting to homicide. She says she averages about 200 calls in an 8 hour shift.

She serves as the messenger between the caller and the responding officer, so it’s up to her to gather important information no matter what’s happening on the other end of the line

It’s a tough task made even more difficult when there’s a language barrier.

The department can handle non-English speaking callers using more common languages like Spanish, Bosnian, and Vietnamese.

They do it with bilingual officers like Yanira Scarlett.

She says her ability to speak Spanish has helped her gain the trust of the community. “Once I have communicated with these people, they will call when they need help, even when I’m not on call 24 hours.”

Unfortunately, the Des Moines Police do not have officers to represent every language spoken in the city, when calls come in from less used languages like Swahili or Burmese they have to find another way to communicate.

In order to break the language barrier, they call in a third party called Language Line.

The California based company provides over-the-phone interpreters to more than 2,000 police departments nationwide.

“This is definitely a lifeline in an emergency situation. We deal with life and death situations all the time.”

Once dispatchers learn the caller’s language or home country they can get a language line interpreter on the phone. That interpreter then takes over, relaying information from the caller to the dispatcher.

Calls cost nearly $2 per minute. That adds up to between $3,000 and $6,000 a year for the department.

But Officer Yanira Sarlett says you can’t put a price on communication when lives are on the line.

“When they see that they can actually communicate, they feel like they’re part of the community. Part of Des Moines.”


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