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Hillsborough police ease communication with translation device

Hillsborough officers report success with gadget, which translates up to 25 languages

Officer Nicholas Chinca holds a portable translator at the Hillsborough police department.

HILLSBOROUGH — Like most cops on the Peninsula, Hillsborough police officers suffer from a language barrier.

Here in multilingual San Mateo County, English may remain the lingua franca, but many thousands have little to no command of the language.

That inability to communicate can be frustrating or even fatal for cops making a routine traffic stop, investigating a crime or responding to the scene of an accident.

But the Hillsborough Police Department has found a way to scale this Tower of Babel with the help of an ECTACO Speechguard PD-5, a multilingual, handheld electronic translation device.

Looking like an chunky, elongated iPod, this translator can store more than 3,000 phrases and their translations into as many as 25 languages.

The $950 gadget is manufactured by a New York-based company that develops and designs translation devices for medical, military, law enforcement and other fields where good communication often means the difference between life and death.

"There's a lot of potential for this tool, especially in this area, where it's a melting pot," said Hillsborough police Officer Nick Chinca.

The town of Hillsborough, home to a little more than 10,000 residents with median household income of more than $260,000, may not strike folks as the most culturally diverse place in San Mateo County.

But approximately one-third of the community is Asian and a significant percentage of that population Advertisement speaks a bare minimum of English. The percentage of the town's Hispanic population is in the low single digits, but many of the domestic workers who tend to the residents' mansions speak only Spanish.

As a result, the town's police officers handle situations involving people who speak limited to no English on about one in 15 to 20 calls, Chinca said.

The most common of these situations for Chinca is "your basic everyday traffic stop," he said.

"You pull somebody over, and they can't understand why you pull them over," the officer explained. "From personal experience, I've had people call a friend and hand me the telephone — and the other person on the phone starts arguing with me."

In the three weeks that Chinca has used the handheld translator, the officer has had occasion to use the device four times. In each case, the officer said, he was able to communicate clearly and effectively why he pulled the individual over.

His PD-5 translator includes basic commands for a routine traffic stop in English, and all the officer had to do was select what he wanted to say in English on the touch screen and the device activated a friendly computerized translation in the appropriate language.

"(The translator) cuts to the chase, and there is less chance of confusion," said Chinca, adding that the technology's most obvious disadvantage is that it cannot translate into English the replies of the individual with whom he is speaking.

But most of the questions on the translator are designed to elicit simple yes or no answers, and often the most important goal in interactions between officers and civilians is to communicate a simple message, Chinca said.

Recently, a Japanese woman with no English language skills dropped her child off at a local elementary school, parking in a red zone right in front of a fire hydrant, Hillsborough police Cpl. Patrick Aherne said. A police officer tried to explain that she needed to move her car, but the conversation dragged on for 20 minutes, he added.

The PD-5 translator would have been perfect for that situation, Aherne said. However, Officer Chinca is the only cop in Hillsborough carrying the gadget.

Chinca, who first stumbled upon an advertisement for the device while thumbing through a law enforcement magazine, will report back to his department's top brass and the department will decide whether to purchase more units.

Based on the translator's initial success, Hillsborough police Lt. Caroline Serrato said the device is "most likely a go."

That's good news for Officer Chinca, who says he's looking forward to flexing his linguistic muscles and using the device to communicate with people in more exotic languages.

"For me (the translator) works easier with Spanish because I have a slight knowledge of the language," Chinca said. "When it gets to Farsi or Taiwanese I'm going to be stumbling through, but if you sent me on a call without this "... I wouldn't be able to get past square one."

Michael Manekin
San Mateo County Times


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