Jan 31 2005

Justice Sometimes Lost in Translation

Published by at January 31, 2005 10:00 pm under Interpretation

A murder case in Escondido reveals a serious flaw in the policies and practices of our police departments when they deal with people who don’t speak English or Spanish well.

Though the need doesn’t arise often, when police require help communicating with someone who doesn’t speak the county’s two main languages, they often rely on translations by people who are not trained interpreters. Because communication is at the root of all good policing, this “catch-as-catch-can” practice hinders cops’ ability to do their jobs well and safely, puts small numbers of immigrants at risk of being wrongly arrested or worse, and runs afoul of federal civil rights guidelines.

Vinh Pham is charged with a 2003 murder in Escondido. When city police detectives interviewed him in jail, a nurse working at the Vista jail served as his interpreter. She wasn’t trained in interpretation. More than just language, interpreters need to know ethical and legal nuances for their work to pass legal muster. Because the nurse didn’t repeat key statements Pham made in Vietnamese to police — “I want to go back to jail” and “I don’t want to say anymore” — a judge tossed out everything the man said after those statements.

The case is not over, and prosecutors say they still have enough evidence to convict Pham.

But the problem revealed by the misinterpretation is wider than just one case.

While the dynamic, responsive nature of police work makes tapping untrained interpreters unavoidable sometimes, it’s never a good idea — the stakes for both cops and citizens are too high. Life and liberty can hang on a misunderstood word or gesture.

In 2002, the federal Justice Department issued guidelines that urged “even small recipients (local police departments) with limited contact with Limited English Proficiency persons” to draft and adopt formal plans for dealing with these situations.

With better management, local police forces can better serve and protect some of our most vulnerable neighbors at their most vulnerable moments. At the very least, police need to redouble their efforts to identify and provide certified interpreters for the main languages in their jurisdictions, especially during major investigations and homicide interrogations.

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