I have a confession to make.
Years ago, as a tourist in Moscow’s Red Square I was detained by the Russian Army.
I had just left Lenin’s Tomb when a soldier approached, barked something in Russian, and confiscated my bag, camera, and wallet. Through his broken English and my non-existent Russian, I worked out that he needed to see my passport, visa, hotel key, airline ticket out of Russia, and some other form of identification I still don’t comprehend.
For 20 minutes or so the soldier exchanged conversations with several comrades who came and went from a nearby police booth before he finally said I could go after paying an on-the-spot fine for not having the right paperwork…which he took directly from my wallet himself.
There’s enough fear in a situation like that when you’re dealing with law enforcement–and I’m not the only person to experience this scam–but once you remove the ability to speak in a common language you feel completely powerless.
Now, British police have found a solution to the ‘lost in translation’ problem by employing video conferencing in criminal proceedings. If we could develop a mobile version, maybe my Red Square crisis would have left me with more cash in my wallet.
Video Conferencing in Criminal Proceedings
Thankfully, I wasn’t taken into a Russian police station during my ordeal, but anyone who does suffer that fate in the UK and doesn’t speak English could now be spared the added confusion of not being able to communicate.
Law enforcement groups in the UK have introduced a remote translation service that allows non-English speakers to have a translator present via video conference during any police interview. With a couple of webcams set up for the police and the person of interest, and a screen displaying the remote translator, everyone can communicate fluently face-to-face.
The service is described by its provider, thebigword (yes, we think it’s a cumbersome company name, too), as a speedy form of anti-terrorism policing that removes the need to wait for an in-room translator to arrive onsite. As an aside, at least one UK court case has been delayed at the expense of £10,000 because the interpreter went to the wrong courthouse.
This long-distance translating service isn’t meant to be used only in court or in high-profile cases, though. London is home to native speakers of more than 300 languages, and it is reasonable to expect some of those people are not going to be proficient enough in English to have a complicated conversation with the police without help. A remote translation service could have the simpler benefit of breaking down barriers between police and foreign-language communities, fostering better relations on the street. It would be even more powerful if it was taken out of the station and made available to the everyday cop on the beat.
Mobile Translation Via Video Call
Thebigword’s video translation service has been used across the British legal system, in courts, prisons, and police settings. Those defined situations make it easy to set up a permanent video conferencing system so that video calls are easy to make and audio and video are good quality. The interviewer sits in one spot, the person of interest in another, making it possible to employ high-quality fixed cameras and microphones.
Once you take the remote translation service mobile, as it really needs to be, you lose that certainty, and potentially some of the audio and visual quality. However, as VC Daily has argued in a past post on video conferencing in law enforcement, there’s a lot to be gained by police forces taking video conferencing with them out into the community. In the case of remote translation services, it can not only speed up police work, but also help the police develop local relationships.
Not every witness to a crime is a suspect, just as not every witness is comfortable visiting their local police station to give evidence. If those in the neighborhood know, though, that the local police have mobile translation services, it might make them more approachable, more trusted. When crime does strike that area, foreign-language speakers may be more likely to casually approach their local police for a general chat about what they know, or what they’ve heard. And this isn’t just true in Britain. The need for this tech is as great in Las Vegas as it is in London.
The best part is that at the most basic level, this barrier-breaking translation device shouldn’t require anything more than a smartphone.
Using Smartphones to Provide Translation Services
The proliferation of video calling apps has made every smartphone into a video conferencing portal. Specialized translation services like thebigword deliver expert training and on-demand translators, but there’s no reason for them to be tied to a particular video calling app. The UK’s regional police forces–or police forces in the U.S.–could potentially equip their officers with simple Skype apps and still deliver the necessary functionality.
With a smartphone app set up to contact a (preferably local) translation service, each police officer would become a mobile translation service. To get urgent information from witnesses to a crime, or just to have a friendly chat, they could dial into the translation service through their phone and share the screen with the person of interest. It would even be possible to record the video call for accountability. Most apps feature recording as standard, but even those like Skype that don’t are compatible with third-party recorders–a little-known Skype trick.
Maybe, if we give the translation tech a few years to leave the station and enter the street with the beat cop, a future tourist stopped by police in Moscow could get a translated explanation of the situation just by pointing to the iPhone on the officer’s belt…provided the officer has their best interests at heart.