Interpreting in Police Settings

We all have occasions when we need to deal with the police. Perhaps your car has been stolen and you have to report it; or perhaps you have witnessed a mugging and you have been called to the police station to be interviewed and provide a witness statement. Or perhaps you have been accused of shoplifting and the security guard has detained you in the back room until the police arrive.

Interacting with the police can be stressful, regardless of whether you are a witness, a victim or a culprit. Most of us have one very useful advantage, however: we can hear. Anyone who is deaf and has dealt with the police may have found communication a major problem. Too often, the forces in the UK and elsewhere in Europe struggle to provide sign language interpreters at short notice or even to understand the needs of deaf people. It hampers their access to justice and needs to be addressed urgently.

Napier, 2016 (Retrieved: 29/11/16)

Napier reminds us of the potential breaches in human rights faced by deaf people who communicate using a signed language, identify as belonging to a linguistic and cultural community and who experience isolation and discrimination when attempting to engage with members of the police service. Napier also points out that this is not a geographically isolated issue; the experience of the British deaf community is mirrored across Europe and further afield.

In the UK context, police forces have a public service mandate to protect and preserve the rights and properties of individuals (Reiner, 2010; Rowe, 2014). The work of the police is not limited to apprehending criminals; it also includes promoting social order and cohesion. Interpreters have a vital role to play in ensuring these policing objectives are met. In fact, interpreters have been working with the police to deliver equity of access for some time. There are a number known issues that must be considered to ensure interpretation in police settings is carried out effectively, these are:

  • how to increase levels of awareness among police officers in dealing with a deaf person who identifies as belonging to a linguistic-cultural community ,
  • to ensure police officers have access to, and make use of, best practice guidelines and guidelines for working with interpreters,
  • how to enhance opportunities for interpreters to train and gain accreditation to work specifically in police and legal settings,
  • building deaf people’s trust and confidence in legal services.

For interpreters, the primary concern is how to deliver an effective service without compromising or interfering with the legal process. On the page entitled “BSL/English interpreting” you will find a description of the complexities of the interpreting process, beyond the transfer of words or signs expressed in one language into those of another. Interpreting is an interpersonal service and a collaborative task. Interpreters therefore are presented with particular considerations, such as how to remain vigilant, continuously monitoring one’s influence on the discourse in order to limit or mitigate this influence. Adding to what someone says or changing the way something is expressed can change the course of a conversation and potential ramifications can be severe. The credibility of a suspect, witness or victim may be brought into question if they appear inconsistent and, in the worst cases, if undetected, a miscarriage of justice could occur. These arguments demonstrate the relevance of interpreter training for legal settings and the importance of recruiting highly skilled interpreters to act as linguistic mediators in police settings.

The burden to make communication work does not rest solely on the shoulders of interpreters; police forces must also play their part. Across the UK a network of Police Link Officers for the Deaf (PLOD) has been established. These are police officers who voluntarily work on behalf of their local police force to improve engagement with the Deaf community and to improve overall access for people who use a signed language. PLOD officers use British Sign Language (BSL) and are able to advise and support other officers who find themselves dealing with situations involving a deaf member of the public. PLOD officers cannot function as an interpreter during interviews but can assist and advise officers in how to work with an interpreter. Other useful guides to working with an interpreter during a police interview can be found here:

You have the Right to Remain Signing: A guide to communicating in interpreter-mediated police interviews

Fair Trials Right to Interpretation and Translation Toolkit

Both guides provide police officers with useful advice on how to work with interpreters, how to formulate questions that are to be interpreted and how to assess the progress of communication mediated by an interpreter.

It is important for trained and registered interpreters to be booked for police interviews (Mulayim, Lai & Norma, 2014). Legislation is in place that recognises the human rights of deaf people to ensure their equal access to the legal system. On 20 October 2010 the European Parliament adopted the Directive on the Right to Interpretation and Translation in Criminal Proceedings. This means everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights:

  • to be informed promptly, in a language which he/she understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against them;
  • to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he/she cannot understand or speak the language used.

A second EU Directive establishes the minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, which was adopted on the 25th of October, 2012. This Directive also ensures a victim of crime is:

  • to receive the assistance of an interpreter if he/she cannot understand or speak the language used

Both Directives place an obligation on every local police force to make reasonable adjustments and provide an interpreter to facilitate their interview. You can check if your interpreter is registered by visiting the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD) who are a UK wide registering body.