Police use of technology to overcome language barriers varies in San Mateo County 

click to enlarge One recommendation made by the civil grand jury is evaluating whether to issue smartphones to officers so they can access translation services. - PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Photo illustration by Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • One recommendation made by the civil grand jury is evaluating whether to issue smartphones to officers so they can access translation services.

The use of technology to overcome language barriers has been embraced in varying forms by police departments across San Mateo County, according to paperwork filed with the civil grand jury.

A report this year reviewed law enforcement's ability to communicate with non-English speakers, and the findings suggest that law enforcement within the county understands and is addressing communication issues with an increasingly multilingual community.

One such recommendation to the 16 law enforcement departments across the county is to evaluate the feasibility of providing smartphones for officers in order to access online translation services, such as Google Translate.

Already some departments officially issue smartphones to their officers, and many have access to the Internet in their squad cars. Other departments, though, cite roadblocks to issuing the phones as a tool.

Redwood City, for example, doesn't provide smartphones to its officers, said Sgt. Greg Farley.

"But everyone I know has one," he said, adding that officers often use their phones — including Google Translate — in the line of duty.

San Mateo, on the other hand, already provides smartphones to some of the officers in the department.

"These phones are immediately available to any field police officer, or detective," officials wrote in a letter to the grand jury.

In other jurisdictions — such as Menlo Park — smartphones aren't on the table at all. That's because each patrol car is already equipped with a computer that has access to the Internet, officials said, and smartphones would only duplicate the functionality

The smartphone recommendation was one of four made by the civil grand jury about how to improve communication with non-English speakers.

The grand jury's recommendations included encouraging more officers to take language classes, as well as developing written policies and procedures for handling encounters with non-English speakers.

Currently, for officers that don't speak other languages, the report indicated that the two services available — LanguageLine interpretation by phone and free Internet translation services — were adequate. Still, 15 of the 20 departments surveyed for the report believed they don't have enough multilingual officers on the payroll.

The investigation was prompted by decades of demographic changes — and continued immigration. As of the 2010 US Census, about one-third of San Mateo County residents are immigrants and 165,000 county residents speak little or no English.

Over the past decade in San Mateo County, the Asian population has increased 25 percent and the Latino population has increased 18 percent.

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