As the U.S. population becomes more diverse and the number of non-English speaking residents grows, the more difficult communication between local law enforcement and residents become.

This January, two handheld voice translation devices -- the Phraselator developed by VoxTec, and the Voice Response Translator (VRT) developed by Integrated Wave Technologies -- were tested by the Chula Vista, Calif., Police Department in conjunction with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego.

"The mission was to do a field test with this equipment with a local law enforcement agency and survey that agency for the practicality of voice translation devices," said Chula Vista Police Lt. Tom Leonard, who served as a Navy SEAL with the Phraselator's engineer and designer. "They said they were interested in getting some feedback from law enforcement."

When Leonard discovered SPAWAR was looking for a local agency to test voice translation technology, he volunteered the Chula Vista Police Department, offering to test the Phraselator and the VRT.

The units contain interchangeable computer chips loaded with phrases from different languages, such as "Stop, or I'll shoot!" "May I help you?" and "Are you in pain?" The devices tested by the Chula Vista Police Department included more than 1,000 phrases from five different languages, including Arabic, Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin.

The translators offer a menu from which users select a phrase and language with a stylus. The device then speaks the phrase in the chosen language.

The translators' architecture permits users to select new dialects and languages easily, so a police officer can insert the proper computer chip before entering an area with a predominant language.

A Glimmer of Light

The test period in Chula Vista lasted two months -- vendors representing both devices spent a day in Chula Vista to train police personnel, and 14 officers and civilian personnel tested each of the two units for a month at a time.

The devices are tough, having been designed for the military. The Phraselator is the largest at 7 inches long and 5 inches wide. Response time for the VRT is about one second, whereas it takes the Phraselator four to six seconds to respond. The VRT runs on a proprietary system and the Phraselator runs on Windows.

Leonard said law enforcement is thrilled with the idea of a language translation device, but so far, they fall short of the mark.

The equipment has potential, he said, and showed it could come in handy in certain instances, such as when a Korean citizen who didn't speak English needed directions.

"Using the Phraselator, the officer was able to give an explanation using the phrases loaded into the device," Leonard said. "The person left smiling. There was a glimmer of light there."

The Phraselator comes with a colored chart containing hundreds of icons and images, such as weapons, vehicles, different images of people -- large people, small people, bearded people and so on. It helps enhance communication between the officer and the non-English speaking subject. The images match the phrases programmed into the device, and the officer can point to an image as he reads a phrase from the Phraselator.

For example, in asking a non-English speaking witness whether a suspect had a gun, an officer could point to the picture of a gun on the chart and then program the Phraselator to verbalize "gun" to the individual.

"You're getting some information back from the person that doesn't speak the language, and we're learning something from this person," Leonard said. "Also, we're offering a limited service to that person that we didn't have previously."

Unrealized Expectations

One problem with the devices, according to Leonard, is that non-English speaking people expect communication the

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor