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In Polyglot L.A., Police Strive to Be Understood : LAPD: Department relies on two sources of language skills--a phone company service and its own officers, who speak 12 different tongues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back home in Turkey, the priest was in the habit of going for an afternoon walk and hitchhiking home, but when he tried it in Tujunga last month, he wound up under arrest.

The man in the black robe fit the description of a suspected child molester, but it was impossible to question him because he spoke only a foreign language that sounded Middle Eastern, officers said.

The problem got kicked up to Capt. Ronald Bergman, who knew just the solution: Officer Shoukry Ethnasios of the Foothill Division, who speaks Arabic.

“When I told him that all he was is a possible suspect, he smiled and started clapping,” Ethnasios said. “He was just very happy” that he could communicate with somebody, Ethnasios said, even if it wasn’t in Turkish, his own tongue, but Arabic, which he understood.

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Ethnasios helped eliminate the priest as a suspect and arranged for him to be turned loose--a typical day for police in a city with an increasingly polyglot population, he noted.

To meet the growing demand for interpreter skills on the streets, the Los Angeles Police Department now has two sources for language backup.

The first is a phone list of all officers who speak a foreign language and who are willing to help in emergencies. After registering with the department, the officers can be called upon, usually on a beeper, in a field crisis or when another officer needs to interview a witness or a suspect.

Within its own ranks, the LAPD can come up with officers who speak 12 languages, from Armenian to Farsi, Russian to Korean.

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“It surprises me how many languages officers speak,” said Bergman. “The diversification of the department has helped to make that happen.”

The second resource is the AT&T; Language Line, run by the phone company for police departments and many other public agencies throughout the country.

“When you have a caller that is talking fast and not making any type of sense, they need to know where they can get help fast,” said Language Line spokesman Mike Cuno. Statistics indicate that there are now at least 31 million people in the United States who have a primary language other than English, he said.

Cultural mores are also taught to the phone bank operators, who are mostly foreign-born, Cuno said. Versed in the slang, customs and overall cultures of the people who speak the languages, the operators are also able to translate idiosyncratic phrases.

For instance, a German might exclaim, “Ich glaub’ mein Hamster bohnert!” Literally that translates as “My hamster is scrubbing the floor,” which ought to wrinkle a few brows out in the patrol cars. But it’s a common German exclamation expressing disbelief or surprise, Cuno said.

Whether it’s helping a Polish family resolve a domestic dispute or gathering information from an Armenian family in a murder case, knowing the language makes a world of difference in police work, officers say.

“If you don’t speak their language, you don’t get good information,” said Officer Rogelio Ty, who works through the LAPD language bank to help Filipino residents. “You get more information and better details with people who speak their language.”

Ty, a detective trainee in the Central Division, said interpreting has been enriching for him personally and also increased his skills as a police officer.

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“Often a Filipino witness will give me more evidence because he feels he can express his feelings to me,” Ty said about his cultural and language skills. “We have the same culture, language, and the same homeland. I’m so happy that I can reach out and help people. Plus, there are still victims out there who need someone who understands them.”

LAPD spokeswoman Lorie Taylor said phone bank officers receive a 2.5% pay increase for speaking a foreign language, and a 5% increase if they can also read and write it.

But in a city as large and diverse as Los Angeles, even the LAPD phone bank cannot fulfill all the language needs.

So when an LAPD officer can’t be found or the dialect goes beyond what the department’s pool offers, the AT&T; service can tap them into a rich river of linguistic resources.

A call to the phone company connects an officer to an operator at a center in Monterey, who patches the call through to one of the interpreters who work from their homes across the country. Usually it can be done in no more than 50 seconds, Cuno said.

LAPD officers sometimes use the AT&T; line a dozen times a day. So far this year, the 24-hour line has interpreted 33 languages for the LAPD, including Finnish, Serbian, Punjabi and Farsi.

In total, it offers more than 140 languages, with Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and Armenian being the most requested languages for police calls from Southern California.

The Language Line also serves other institutions, including banks, government agencies and hotels. The calls are not free though. After a onetime fee of $200, subscribers pay from $2.20 to $4.50 a minute, based on the language, how rare it is and the time of the call. Night and weekend service costs more.

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AT&T;'s phone bank was the brainchild of two entrepreneurs, a San Jose police officer and a former Marine who started the company as a local volunteer program to aid both immigrants and police after many Southeast Asians moved into the San Jose area in the early 1980s.

After the company became successful, the owners sold it to AT&T;, which parlayed it into a service that helps thousands of people, including AT&T; customers, every year.

According to Cuno and some interpreters, the language edge can be especially valuable in incidents when a family’s cultural background may influence the way they view domestic violence or reporting relatives who might have stolen something. Interpreters who grew up in a similar culture may have the best chance of getting through to the person to get them to cooperate, he said.

AT&T; Language Line operator Rimma Guledjian, who speaks Russian, Ukrainian and a little bit of Armenian, works from her Pasadena home. She said that despite the time she spends on routine tasks such as assisting non-English-speaking AT&T; customers with phone bills, playing a part in saving lives makes her job more rewarding.

One of Guledjian’s co-workers, Alexis DeBram, supervises a team of Language Line workers in the Monterey office. Acting as both counselor and interpreter is an uneasy position, he said, but one he enjoys because of the variety.

“In one day you can handle a rape case, domestic violence, inform someone about a death in the family or help someone have a baby,” said DeBram. “It can go from very stressful to joyous.”


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