Oh, Stewardess! I Speak Cop!

Plenty of people have been having some fun with the news that the Justice Department is seeking qualified Ebonics translators.

The Department of Justice is seeking to hire linguists fluent in Ebonics to help monitor, translate, and transcribe the secretly recorded conversations of subjects of narcotics investigations, according to federal records.

A maximum of nine Ebonics experts will work with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Atlanta field division, where the linguists, after obtaining a “DEA Sensitive” security clearance, will help investigators decipher the results of “telephonic monitoring of court ordered nonconsensual intercepts, consensual listening devices, and other media”

It's a little less hilarious in context, though.

If you've ever handled a case with a wiretap or consensually recorded conversation, you'll know what the feds are looking for: they want people who will dutifully translate vague, jargon-laden, often unintelligible conversations in a manner that will support their theory of the case. If the people on the tape say something difficult to hear that might be "shirt" or "thing" or "hat", the feds want a "translator" who will get on the stand and proclaim, with pseudo-scientific confidence, that the person did say "shirt" or "thing" or "hat", and that "shirt" or "thing" or "hat" is necessarily, in context, a reference to large quantities of illegal drugs. Juries, notably and regrettably credulous about law enforcement pseudo-science, eat this stuff up.

There is, of course, no reliable peer-reviewed Institute of Ebonics to which one can appeal for testimony that the translator in question in full of shit. Judges are notoriously lenient about letting such testimony in, and translators (like other technicians serving the prosecution) are notoriously eager to provide the most incriminating translation possible.

Back when I was a fed, my office had a rough patch in its relationship with a local DEA office. It seems that the DEA office just loved a particular Spanish translator, and used her to translate as many wiretaps and CI recordings as possible. The translator advertised vigorously to local law enforcement, sending fliers that said things like "the right translation can make the difference between a guilty verdict and a not guilty verdict" and "how I translate one word can make all the difference to your case." Some defense attorneys got wind of these advertisements and were kicking the shit out of the translator on the cross-examination; the pandering partiality was grotesque enough that even jurors grasped it. My office didn't want her used any more; the DEA office stubbornly refused to stop using her, proclaiming that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with a translator who marketed herself as an open advocate for the government. But her only error was a lack of subtlety. That's the sort of translator DoJ is looking for.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    I don't speak a lot of cop, but anybody who reads Lawrence Block knows that a "hat" is a small bribe to a police officer. A large bribe is a "coat." By extension, a "shirt" must be a medium-sized bribe. The "windows and orphans fund" is also a bribe. It's kind of like Eskimo words for snow. Hope that helps!

  2. says

    You're not talking about Ebonics, you're talking about slang and jargon.

    A police officer ought to know street slang on his own and not need a translator to decipher it. When a man approaches your car and asks you "What choo need?" you ought not to need an "Ebonics consultant" to translate that into "Good evening sir, would you like to purchase some illegal narcotic substances from me?"

    Nor do I think a jury would be so dense as to disregard an officer's testimony as to the true meaning of a phrase like "What choo need?" or a "hat". "When the defendant said, 'I gotta hat you might wanna wear,' I understood that to mean that he was offering me a bribe." A jury is just plain going to buy that without a consultant.

  3. says

    TL, you are talking about situations where a reasonable person could infer meaning from context, and an expert translator is not necessary.

    That's not where the action is.

    The action is when you have long conversations peppered with only partially intelligible statements and references without sufficient context for a layperson to draw a conclusion.

    And yes, calling it "Ebonics" is just a way from them to dress up the idea that they want an expert in jargon.

  4. says

    Oh noes, Ken, you mean evidence susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation? But — but — but — that doesn't meet the burden of proof! What's a prosecutor to do? I mean, she couldn't possibly dismiss a case that lacks sufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime took place, could she?

    I know, I'm just impossibly naive.

  5. Justin says

    Didn't The Wire already do this? I distinctly remember the cops bringing in a translator to decipher the various codes and slang used by the gangs. In fact, all the cops had a big laugh when someone actually said the word "cocaine" when during a recorded call.

  6. staghounds says

    How many time have I had to get witnesses to translate phrases like "And then he stole me!" for mystified judges and jurors.

    (Stole means struck unexpectedly.)

    I have on more than one occasion told hostile witnesses, "Speak English, you aren't slinging crack to your home boys on Fagan Street now."

    And I say it just like Barbara would.

    Barbara Bush, that is.

  7. David T says

    Thanks Ken; you provided me with a lot of insight into what had just seemed like a weird piece of news.

  8. Matt says

    I remember that Wire scene. The context was a mid-level dealer so dense in the head that even _he_ didn't understand the other guys' euphamistic language on the phone. Prompting one to shout "COCAINE, Motherfscker!" at him, and the listening cops to immediately begin conspiring about how to get the dense guy promoted within the organization. :)

    Great show.

  9. ParatrooperJJ says

    Actually it is very sad. It's a huge indictment of our public school system that they are not teaching correct English any more.

  10. says

    @Justin: They never brought in third party translators or assigned specific people to translation, but they did value people on the team who were adept at interpreting conversations on the wire. Prez had a knack for it, and later in the series that larger black lady (I forget the character’s name) was their go-to source.

    Oh, and yeah that “cocaine, nig*a!” scene is great. It's on YouTube, at the link in my username.

  11. parse says

    I vaguely remember a couple of cases in New York–I think one of them involved John Gotti, and it might have been the official in the carpenters union who got shot–where recordings of the same conversations were used in two different trials, and the juries were provided with transcripts of the conversations because they were often hard to hear. Except the transcripts on the same conversations, which were provided by the government, were different from one case to the other, each one more effectively supporting the particular prosecution theory of the alleged crime in each trial.

  12. Marco73 says

    There was a missing child case in Tampa where the county sheriff's office secretly recorded the parents at home alledgedly making incredibly incriminating statements. The "secret" transcripts were dutifully leaked to the press, where the parents were villified on a daily basis. The defense attorney fought for months to get the actual recordings, not the transcripts. The defense then publicly released their own transcripts that appeared to demonstrate that the parents never said anything like what the prosecution leaked. The judge finally had to sit both sides down, and played the tapes in chambers. The judge determined that the recordings were so poor that no one could decipher what was on the tapes. As a result, the county settled a substantial civil case with the parents over malicious prosecution. No jury in the Tampa area will ever be seated in a generation without someone recalling how the prosecution tried to railroad those unfortunate parents over some pretty crappy recordings. Oh yes, the child has never been found, and the parents have had to move out of state.

  13. Patrick says

    I have on more than one occasion told hostile witnesses, “Speak English, you aren’t slinging crack to your home boys on Fagan Street now.”

    Where do you practice, that you don't get mistrials, admonitions in front of the jury, and reversals for your inexcusable conduct in the courtroom?

  14. Wolfwood says

    Well, that's a cynical take. Another possibility is just that the words and rhythms are so different that someone more familiar with proper English is at a disadvantage. I just finished transcribing a stationhouse interview with a woman and it took seemingly forever to do it. I've transcribed hours of academic conference recordings in far less time than it took to do her 30 minute interview. She used almost no slang, either; it was just that her speech patterns, lack of ability to tell a story in a linear manner, mumbling, and sudden stringing of words together meant that my 70wpm typing just wasn't up to the task.

    Besides, there's no one who knows the slang used everywhere. DC and Baltimore are different, much more so for NYC and LA.