Phraselator Helps L.A. Police Communicate

Eric Lee with Phrasealator

Sergeant Eric Lee shows off his new phraselator, in front of a 4-wheel-drive Polaris. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR

Hands Behind Your Back!

The Phraselator offers this helpful command in dozens of languages. Here's a sampling:

The Phrasealator

The phraselator is priced at $2,500. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR

The Los Angeles Police Department has a new crime-fighting tool. It looks like something Captain Kirk and his crew might have used in Star Trek, but the device was developed by the Pentagon for U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The hand-held "phraselator," as it's known, broadcasts thousands of pre-recorded phrases in dozens of different languages.

"It's not a translation device. It's not something I can actually speak into and convert my voice or my language," explains Capt. Dennis Kato.

The apparatus can be hooked up to powerful speakers to project numerous expressions such as "We are here to facilitate your first amendment rights" and "Hands behind your back" up to half a mile away.

In a city where more than 260 languages are spoken, the device can help officers meet the challenge of communication, Kato says.

The main idea is for police to use the phraselator for crowd control. A language barrier played a role in the chaos that ensued last year during the May Day immigration rights march in MacArthur Park, when police in riot gear used batons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, Kato says. Dozens were hurt, including immigrants with limited English language comprehension.

"Most of the demonstrators were Spanish speaking, and we did it in English. When we started looking at what tools we had that could help, we came across this phraselator," he says.

The police department is still working out the kinks on four test devices, priced at $2,500 each. Key phrases are yet to be uploaded.

Still, attached to powerful speakers on the LAPD's other new gizmo — the $35,000 Polaris, a sort of tricked-out golf cart that can go over curbs and sidewalks, the apparatus does what it's supposed to do.

It gets the message out, Sgt. Eric Lee says.

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