Medical Interpreters Help Officers by Not Interpreting for Them

police line

Medical interpreters can generally stay within their field of expertise quite easily. It’s just a matter of accepting only those assignments that take place at a medical facility. Done deal, right? Not quite. While this trick might work much of the time, there are situations when services overlap, and the medical interpreter is faced with a scenario that involves the medical team and law enforcement officers. This can put the interpreter in a difficult position in which the interpreter might be tempted to cross between interpreting for the medical team and law enforcement officers. The medical interpreter should not, however, go beyond interpreting for the medical team.

“What? That’s so mean!” you might say. “The officer has the right to communicate with the patient, too!” you might say. To which I say, “no” and “yes” respectively.

First off, it is not mean to refuse to interpret for the law enforcement officer on-site. In fact, you’re doing the officer a favor. (Sidebar: You’re also doing a favor for the medical team, the patient, and yourself, but that’s a different topic for a different day.) Yes, a favor, and here’s why:

It boils down to being trained and qualified to do the work before you. You have the proper training and qualifications to interpret in the medical setting. You do not have the proper training and qualifications to interpret for law enforcement officers. (Sidebar: If you are trained for both medical and law enforcement, that’s also a different topic for a different day, but in short, wear only your medical interpreter badge, and stick to the medical.)

If you interpret for the law enforcement officer, you are potentially jeopardizing any legal investigation that the officer might be conducting. This could lead to bad consequences for the officer, for the community, or for the patient. And chances are, these bad consequences won’t be immediately apparent, but they will surface long after everyone leaves the Emergency Department at 2:46 AM on a Friday night. Be careful not to fall into the temptation of sacrificing the long-term good for the short-term people-pleaser fix.

Which brings me to the “yes” I mentioned earlier. Yes, the officer has the right to communication with the patient. But let’s be clear. You are not denying the officer interpreter services. You are denying the officer your interpreter services. There’s a big difference.

Set the officer up for success by suggesting, and if necessary insisting, that the officer contact an interpreter who works for the police department. For this response to have the best chance of success, be proactive and recommend this to the officer right away. Don’t wait until the officer asks you to interpret something to then say, “Sorry, officer, I can’t interpret for you.” That probably won’t go over very well.

What challenges have you encountered when the patient you’re interpreting for is in the custody of law enforcement officers?

Want to learn strategies to maintain role boundaries and preserve professional relationships when law enforcement overlaps with medical care? Join us for Stop! It’s the Police! an online continuing education course for medical interpreters.

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