Riverhead PD installs translation hotline phone

06/13/2013 4:30 PM |
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The new language hotline at the Riverhead Police Department's front desk will make it easier for police and residents to communicate, town officials said.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The new language hotline at the Riverhead Police Department’s front desk will make it easier for police and residents to communicate, town officials said.

A new translation hotline at the Riverhead Police Department is making it easier for non-English speakers to get help, and for police officers to learn about tips and other important information faster.

The phone was installed Tuesday and uses a round-the-clock language hotline to clear up communication between police at the front desk and people who don’t speak English who need assistance, said Riverhead police Captain Richard Smith.

“I think it helps us to communicate accurately and effectively,” he said.

The language hotline phone — known as a Limited English Proficiency device — is the first of its kind among local police departments on the North Fork, Captain Smith said.

A similar system is in use by Suffolk County police at their precincts and was the inspiration for Riverhead’s program.

“I saw they were using it and I liked it,” Captain Smith said. “We came to the realization, maybe we should use them at the window … We’re always looking for new ways [to improve].”

The system works by having the non-English speaker pick up the black phone labeled “Telefono Ingles Limitado” (Limited English Phone) next to the counter at the front desk. The officer behind the desk will immediately be put on the line and can then call the language hotline, which offers “any language” the complainant is fluent in, Captain Smith said.

A translator from the hotline, the police officer at the desk and the person who needs help will then be set up on a three-way conference call that lets the desk officer speak to the non-English speaker through the translator in real time.

The phone is ready for use now, Captain Smith said.

The police department already had access to the language line, and used it to speak with suspects or victims in emergency situations.

But Captain Smith said adding a line to the front desk will make it easier for residents who speak languages other than English to get help fast or file reports.

“We just recognized the importance of communication between us and the people in the community that aren’t proficient in English,” he said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, who is also the town’s police commissioner, called the translation system a progressive new step that will clear up issues the department had when talking with complainants who couldn’t speak English.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “Captain Smith spearheaded that so kudos to him.”

Since the police department already had access to the hotline, the new phone won’t cost the town anything extra, Mr. Walter said.

Sister Margaret Smyth, the executive director of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, said she was thrilled to learn of the department’s new system.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “The simple thing of asking correctly for a police report becomes complicated when you can’t say it exactly right.”

Sister Margaret said it’s not just Spanish-speaker who will use the phone, but anyone who is more comfortable in a different language.

“It’s not just Hispanics,” she said. “Riverhead is a diverse population with people from Poland, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan, Italy.

Anybody who before would say, ‘I can’t go to the police because I can’t talk to them’ will now be able to talk to them in their language.”

Sister Margaret has see people walk into her office on Roanoke Avenue and ask for help because they didn’t know how to go to the police for assistance or to report a crime had occurred.

A domestic violence victim, she explained, will now be able to accurately describe what happened to police, letting them catch the culprit and prevent further crime.

She said the initiative will also increase trust between minority populations and the police department, adding that the phone will “open the doors and allows more communication to take place.”

“It’ll set an example for all the police departments,” she said.

Sister Margaret said the language hotline will benefit those who speak English as well, because police will be able to learn more from minority populations that will allow them to better police the entire town.

“The person who’s coming in could be reporting something in your neck of the woods that could affect you,” she said. “Whatever anybody reports that could help the community helps everybody in the community.”

psquire@timesreview.com