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Voxtec Phraselator

In May 2007, an immigration rally in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park turned into a difficult lesson in crowd-control tactics for the Los Angeles Police Department. As pockets of the crowd became unruly, officers found that their dispersal orders were being ignored. They resorted to using batons and less-lethal rounds to contain the swelling crowd, resulting in hundreds of injuries to officers and civilians and more than 250 legal claims against the city.

In the aftermath, LAPD officials reviewed its crowd-control procedures in an effort to identify what went wrong. Chief among its findings was an inability to effectively communicate commands and warnings to the protestors, many of whom understood little English. In addition, announcements broadcast in English from a helicopter proved ineffective and added to the confusion.

To help avoid future public demonstrations from turning violent, the LAPD sought a way to improve its crowd-control capabilities by providing its officers the ability to communicate with all members of the city’s diverse community. And with 68% of its 9,600-member force unable to speak a second language, the LAPD turned to technology for a solution.

The Solution

To provide officers the ability to communicate with people who do not understand English, the LAPD purchased the Phraselator® handheld language translation systems from Voxtec. The department also purchased a Polaris all-terrain vehicle equipped with a MAD™ full-range speakers, which allows officers to broadcast translated phrases from its Phraselators in several languages. The LAPD has dubbed the Phraselator-equipped ATV its Critical Incident Utility Vehicle.

“Restoring order in chaotic situations requires carefully worded communication that can be understood by everyone within earshot,” Sergeant Eric Lee said. “When attached to MAD technology, we can program the Phraselators to project phrases such as ‘We are here to facilitate your First Amendment rights,’ repeated in several languages, up to a half-mile away without loss of clarity.”

The Phraselator is a one-way, handheld speech-to-speech translation system that allows users to translate pre-defined phrases from English into more than 40 languages. Originally designed for military use, the Phraselator incorporates automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology, allowing any English speaker to use his voice to access pre-recorded foreign language translations. Phraselators for law enforcement use come loaded with thousands of phrases organized into situational phrase modules.

Commonly used phrases such as those used for crowd-control detail can be grouped into a single category for faster recall and looped for sequenced playback in multiple languages. Phraselators also have the ability to digitally record and timestamp several hours of commentary, allowing officers to record responses to phrases such as “Tell me what happened” in a speaker’s native language for later translation into English.

The LAPD also purchased Module Builder PRO™ software from Voxtec, which will allow the department to create and install its own set of customized crowd-control phrases using trusted human translators. Module Builder PRO allows multilingual officers to replicate some of their ability for the benefit of the department and the community.

“The power to customize the devices ourselves is a very important feature,” said Captain Dennis Kato, who was instrumental in obtaining Phraselators for the LAPD. “With more than 260 languages spoken in the Los Angeles area, a human translator can’t be present in every situation requiring communication with someone with limited English proficiency.”

LAPD officers note that the portable Phraselators have the potential for assisting communication efforts in many law enforcement environments. “The more we use the Phraselators, the more we identify additional situations where they can improve our communication and overall level of service,” Sergeant Lee said. “These devices can be a lifesaver.”

Dave Clossey is a writer with Abel Communications in Baltimore, MD. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2008

Rating : 4.5

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