Dan Ruth: 'Interpreter' did Tampa no favors

Times Columnist Dan Ruth. [Times file]
Times Columnist Dan Ruth. [Times file]
Published Dec. 7, 2017

Let us be perfectly clear. Or perhaps not.

This was supposed to be a sort of moment of triumph for Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who was given the top job full-time while in the tense investigation to solve the serial killer murders of four people in Seminole Heights.

Instead Dugan unwittingly became a prop in a Tampa version of the old "Saturday Night Live" news for the hearing impaired sketch in which interpreter Garrett Morris screams out the headlines delivered by Chevy Chase.

By now the use of sign language interpreters at news conferences have become ubiquitous. Until something goes horribly wrong. Or perhaps better put, UNTIL SOMETHING GOES HORRIBLY WRONG!!!!!!!

As Dugan spoke during his press conference he was flanked on one side by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and what people thought was a highly trained, professional sign language interpreter on the other. Ooooops.

Rather it was Derlyn Roberts doing the interpreting, which amounted to looking like a game of charades. "She sat up there and waved her hands around like she was singing 'Jingle Bells'," Rachelle Settambrino, told the Tampa Bay Times' Paul Guzzo. Or perhaps it was "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." Who knows?

Well Settambrino ought to know signing as opposed to simply flapping one's wings. She is deaf herself and teaches American Sign Language at the University of South Florida.

Just how Roberts wound up standing next to the police chief, faux signing away as if she was doing a hand puppet performance isn't entirely clear.

An interpreter had not been requested for the press conference. And the police department generally employs the services of Purple Communications when a sign language interpreter is needed.

However Dugan and the TPD aren't the first to be duped by a less than qualified signer. In Manatee County recently, a bungling interpreter managed to mangle a press conference called to discuss the after effects of Hurricane Irma.

And how can we forget an incident back in 2013 when a fake interpreter somehow managed to find himself standing next to President Barack Obama during memorial services for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Making matters worse, the phony signer latter admitted he suffered from mental health issues. No kidding.

You'll probably not be surprised to learn Florida does not require American Sign Language interpreters to be certified, which involves possessing a degree in signing communications and passing a three-part test administered by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, along with continuing education courses.

What would be the signing interpretation of "Duh"? After all, this is a unique skill that requires quickly and accurately translating one language into another. You would think an agency like a police department that needs to communicate with the public would insist on hiring only a demonstrably qualified signer.

It is not easy to just walk around the Tampa Police Department, not to mention someone nobody seemed to know successfully navigating their way to be front and center alongside the chief of police and the mayor during a press conference under the pretext of providing dubious sign language services.

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But Derlyn Roberts did. Then again Roberts does have some familiarity with police departments. Numerous news accounts following the signing boondoggle noted that Roberts has an arrest record and was only released from state prison last year after serving a term for organized fraud.

Regardless of Roberts' motives, pretending to be something she is not does not qualify as a crime. But it would seem to certainly rise to the level of being (ahem) ethics-challenged.

At a moment of high grief for the victims of a serial killer and great relief a suspect had been taken into custody, Roberts seized upon the occasion to expose the community to worldwide ridicule.

There is a nonverbal gesture we all can recognize that deserves to be expressed in Roberts' general direction — an eye roll.