As Maine's immigrant population slowly increases, police adapt to bridge language barrier

Published: Mar. 19, 2018 at 4:31 PM EDT
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Maine has one of the least diverse populations in the nation. But the number of immigrants moving here has slowly increased through the years.

So police departments have had to learn how to bridge the language barrier when interacting with individuals who don't speak English.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine has one of the whitest populations in the country, at just about 95%.

The state's capital has seen an influx of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, some of whom speak Arabic as their first language.

"A lot of times, as long as they're not the suspect of an inquiry or someone that we're looking at to maybe charge with something, it's generally accepted that we could talk to a family member or someone nearby that might speak that language," said Sgt. Christian Behr, Bureau Chief of Information Services, Augusta P.D.

When interacting with immigrants or foreigners in public, officers tend to use friends and family to interpret, but in order to protect an individual's rights when police are questioning or interrogating a suspect, an impartial interpreter is a must.

It takes a great deal of understanding and patience on both ends to bridge the langauge barrier. Augusta police employ a common translating service when interacting with those accused of a crime that don't speak English.

"We subscribe to something called LanguageLine and essentially you call on an 800-number and you advise them what type of interpreter you need based on the language you might be needing to have interpreted, and they will connect you with the proper interpreter," said Sgt. Behr.

Police and dispatch can use the service using a landline or cell phone.

Sometimes they communicate with individuals using a point-to pictures card that breaks down a number of emergency situations and scenarios in simple picture form.

"They can take out this card, they can show it to the person that they're trying to communicate with and allow them to actually point to what the issue on the card might be that they're trying to tell us," said Behr.

For those hard of hearing or deaf, police have a list of vetted American Sign Language interpreters who can meet law enforcement on scene to help communicate.

While officers are not required to learn a second language in Maine, they do undergo cultural diversity training in the academy to be prepared to interact with individuals from all walks of life.