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How Officers Communicate with Those Who Do Not Speak English

This weekend, officers were flagged down in the mall regarding a disoriented, elderly male who seemed lost and confused. The individual only spoke Mandarin. Thankfully some passerby’s and an employee of a store were able to briefly translate for officers until they had to go back about their business. So what happens when officers aren’t able to communicate with someone because they do not speak English? In this case, officers were able to utilize something known as Language Line to communicate with the individual and safely get the individual back home to his family.

When someone calls 911 who either does not speak English or speaks a little but not enough to fully understand, we have a variety of tools at our disposal to assist.

Our multilingual officers are our first resource for assisting those in need. We are fortunate to have quite a number of officers that speak Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bosnian, Vietnamese, French and several other languages. When an officer logs into service via the dispatch program with their unique identifier, next to their name is listed any languages that they speak. If a 911 call is received and the 911 caller speaks only Spanish, the dispatcher will look through the roster of on-duty officers for any officer(s) on duty that speaks Spanish. The dispatcher will then check to see if that officer is available to handle the call even if it is not in their assigned district. Our officers are also available and have been regularly called upon by neighboring agencies to assist with translation for their department if they do not have an officer available that speaks the required language.

All of our officers are also equipped with the phone number to a contracted “language line” service. Once the language of the 911 caller is ascertained by dispatchers and an officer is dispatched to assist, our officers call the language line which is a 24/7 service. They then ask for an interpreter for whatever language is needed to communicate with the person that is requesting police assistance. The interpreter on behalf of the officer translates both what the officers is saying into the caller’s native language and what the caller is saying into English for the officer to understand.

If an officer is contacted in-person by someone seeking assistance that does not speak English, officers are equipped with a book containing words and phrases in many different languages. The officer works with the individual seeking assistance to go through the pages until they can identify one that they understand. The officer then utilizes the language line for the identified language to assist with helping the individual in whatever way they can.

With over 80 languages spoken by residents of Tukwila, we are one of the most diverse cities in the country. We are grateful to have so many multilingual officers in our ranks that are a true asset to assisting members of the Tukwila community.

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