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115th Precinct dials California for interpreters

Patrol officers from the 115th Precinct are carrying cell phones that place them just a call away from simultaneous interpretation of more than 150 languages.

Part of a two-year pilot program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the initiative helps officers better communicate with the diverse mix of people who make up the communities of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and East Elmhurst, said Yolanda Jimenez, commissioner for the mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence, which applied for the grant.

Police precincts "have other volunteers from within the force that are knowledgeable in certain languages," Jimenez said. "But the challenge of getting someone at 2 in the morning in Urdu is very real."

As much as 77 percent of the residents in the 115th Precinct are foreign-born, and 83 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

When confronted with non-English speakers, officers use the phones to call an operator at California-based Language Line Interpretation Services.

Dale Hansman, Language Line's public relations manager, said callers are usually connected to an interpreter in fewer than 15 seconds, even faster for more common languages. "With Spanish, in particular, we can get an interpreter on the line in a matter of seconds," Hansman added.

Jimenez said the program was conceived to help officers assist victims of domestic violence. The $300,000 grant from the Justice Department covers all of the program's costs, including service for the 10 telephones in use, special training for officers, sanctuary for victims, outreach programs and the per-minute fees for use of the interpretation services, Jimenez said.

"One of the things we have heard directly from survivors of domestic violence is the challenge to communicate," said Jimenez, whose office has worked on other domestic violence assistance grants. "This is the one issue that comes up very often."

But the phones - eight of which travel with officers patrolling the area and two that stay at the station - can be used in any situation where officers are confronted with non-English speakers, said Leah Cunningham, a spokeswoman for Jimenez's office.

Since the program's launch, officers have called 32 times for eight different languages - Spanish, Bengali, Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Farsi, Sinhalese (spoken in Sri Lanka) and Russian, Cunningham said.

"I'm very ... excited that the officers have responded and (seen) this as a tool that can assist them," Jimenez said.

Planners selected the 115th Precinct as a proving ground for its diversity, and if the program's results are positive, officials will look for ways to take it citywide, Jimenez said.

"The challenge now is how do we expand it and make it accessible to other communities," Jimenez said.

Language Line, the company selected to provide the service, was founded 21 years ago by a California police officer and an instructor at the Monterey, Calif.-based Defense Language Institute.

"The first use of our service was police officers in the San Jose area," Hansman said. They "were running into situations all too often when they couldn't understand the situation they were involved in because the dispatcher didn't understand (the language of the caller)."

Language Line already provides interpretation for the New York City's police 911 line and city hospitals.

The company, which has call centers in 11 time zones and offers services 24 hours a day, charges a per-minute fee of between $1.50 and $2.25 depending on the client, Hansman said.

A public meeting to promote awareness of the service and other domestic violence initiatives within the Latino community was to take place Wednesday at Blessed Sacrament Church on 93rd Street in Jackson Heights at 7 p.m. Jimenez said city officials were working to set up meetings for the Asian and South Asian communities in the upcoming weeks.

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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