CLEARWATER — Officer Ray Croze pressed the button twice and asked for German.
Within 30 seconds, he was on the line with an interpreter in Portland, Ore.
In April, the Clearwater Police Department bought 10 mobile translators, which connect officers with live interpreters at four call centers around the country. The system, known as ELSA (Enabling Language Service Anywhere), can translate 180 different languages.
"This thing's definitely gotten me through some tough situations," said Croze, who serves as the department's Hispanic outreach coordinator but is still learning Spanish.
U.S. Census Bureau data collected from 2007 to 2011 show that nearly 19 percent of Clearwater's 108,732 residents speak a language other than English at home. Croze believes the devices will help officers bridge language gaps in the community.
"It's not every day that we run into people who don't speak English, but it's definitely helpful when we do," he said.
Croze has used ELSA "six or seven times" in the past two months. He said it's been used to translate Spanish, Russian and French.
In total, Clearwater police used ELSA for 21 minutes in April and 41 minutes in May. The service costs $1.50 per minute and is funded with drug forfeiture money, police Chief Anthony Holloway said.
"We don't have that many officers who speak Spanish … so it's really a way to help break down that language barrier," he said.
Only 10 of city's 230 sworn officers are bilingual, according to Clearwater public safety spokesman Rob Shaw.
Robin Gomez, the city auditor and Hispanic-Latino liaison, estimated that "dozens" of languages are spoken in Clearwater. And with a burgeoning international tourist base, that number could be greater, he said.
Gomez recently saw officers using the device firsthand. He was eating ice cream with his wife at Clearwater Beach earlier this month when nearby, two French tourists were reporting a stolen bag to police. The problem: The officer didn't speak French.
Using ELSA, the officer learned that the tourists' passports had been stolen. He put them in contact with the French consulate in Orlando, Gomez said.
"Seeing it in action, it was just really neat. I think it can do a lot of good," he said.
The Clearwater Police Department was the first in Florida to use ELSA, followed by the Kissimmee Police Department. They are the only departments in the state currently using the system, Holloway said.
Charles Howerton, vice president of Minnesota-based RTT Mobile, invented ELSA in 2007 after struggling to communicate with Spanish-speaking employees at his construction company.
"For first responders, these guys work in harsh conditions with a ton of ambient noise. Coming from a construction site, I designed it for those conditions," he said.
And for Croze, the translators have come in handy in plenty of varied environments.
"We've used them at traffic stops, at the beach — all kinds of places," he said. "So ultimately, I think these things are here to stay."
Matt McKinney can be reached at (727) 445-4156 or [email protected]