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MSP Translator and Interpreter Program Bridges a Gap

A communication barrier can make an already tense or stressful situation worse. Being able to speak someone’s native language provides comfort and, in some instances, helps to reduce conflict.

“I never thought I’d use my Dutch skills on the job,” said Sgt. Ben Mahaffie, who is assigned to the Paw Paw Post. “The Mt. Pleasant Post interviewed a man from South Africa whose original language is Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch. He spoke English but working with me to clarify some points, and interpret his prayers, put him at ease after being involved in a traumatic experience.”

Photo of Sgt Ben Mahaffie

Sergeant Mahaffie, who learned the language while living in the Netherlands as a child, again used his language skills the week after during a traffic stop.

“The people in the vehicle were shocked when I started speaking Dutch,” he said. “I speak Spanish too, which I learned because of my job. When I worked at another police agency, there was a large fight and I was frustrated because I couldn’t understand what people were saying.”

Sergeant Mahaffie and nearly 30 of his colleagues make up the Michigan State Police Translator & Interpreter Program, which was established in 2020 to provide language translation and interpreter services to department members and other law enforcement agencies.

“We’ve always done this unofficially,” said D/F/Lt. Chuck Christensen, commander of the Fifth District Special Investigation Section. D/F/Lieutenant Christensen, who himself is fluent in Spanish, serves as the program’s coordinator.

“Michigan is diverse, and we saw an opportunity to create a structured initiative to better utilize our people who have existing backgrounds in various language skills,” continued D/F/Lt. Christensen. “We have members who speak Arabic, Polish, Hindi – the list goes on. They amaze me.”

In its first year, the 25-member team, who speak 18 languages, was called upon approximately 60 times. A little more than halfway into 2022, they’ve assisted in 55 calls for service. The range of what they do is impressive – supporting victims, interviewing suspects, translating text for department members, performing outreach at community events – the asks even surprise them sometimes.

Team members are accessible 24/7 throughout the entire state, in-person or by phone.

Photo of Tpr Juliana Arnold

Tpr. Juliana Arnold, assigned to the Manistique Outpost, rarely uses her Spanish speaking skills in her immediate post area but remains one of the most referred translator/interpreters in the department.

“Spanish is my first language; I spoke it solely until I was five years old,” Trooper Arnold said. “Recently, a fire captain in Monroe County reached out because they needed a Spanish speaker to talk with some people who were involved in a traffic crash. I got on the phone and explained what they should do and what to expect next. It was only a few minutes, but I understood what they were asking, and I was able to assist them.”

She later received a handwritten thank you note from the fire captain indicating she made a difficult situation manageable.

“The biggest takeaway from the program is the importance of the ability to be understood,” said Sergeant Mahaffie. “You may not be able to appreciate this until you’ve been put in a situation where you don’t understand what’s happening and how uncomfortable that is. We can put people at ease. We want to make people feel comfortable coming to us.”

Additional information about the program and a list of language skills offered can be found here. State Police translator and interpreter services are available by request to any law enforcement agency in Michigan.