In St. Louis, a deaf man having a diabetic emergency said police beat him on the side of the road.
In Tacoma, Washington, a deaf woman who called for help after an assault said police used a Taser on her instead.
In Oklahoma City, a deaf man was shot and killed by officers as neighbors yelled that he couldn’t hear their commands.
Disability rights advocates don’t want a Phoenix resident to be next.
The Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is partnering with the Phoenix Police Department on a training program to teach sworn officers how to communicate more effectively — and lawfully — with people who can’t hear them.
A police spokesman said Phoenix has incorporated the weekly sessions, provided free by commission officials, into officers’ annual certification process.
“We had consumers come to our office and say, ‘I just tried to file a police report and I couldn’t get access,’ or, ‘I waited for someone (to come help me) and it was not accessible,’” said Carmen Green Smith, commission deputy director. “So that was a reason for us to reach out and say, ‘We need this training for our community.’”
‘It is a challenge’
Phoenix police Sgt. David Montoya said he knows residents who are deaf and hard of hearing get frustrated when they encounter officers not prepared to interact with them. He said officers share in that frustration, particularly during routine stops complicated by communication barriers.
“A traffic stop is among the most dangerous things that we do, because we’re walking into an unknown situation,” he said. “Our ability to verbally communicate is one of the most powerful tools we have, so if someone is unable to receive that, it creates confusion and conflict.”
If a person who is deaf or hard of hearing doesn’t respond to instructions or commands, for instance, the officer might think the person is failing to comply on purpose. Or, if someone starts to reach for a deaf-identification card, the officer might assume the person is going for a gun.
“If officers can get through that initial concern and confirm that it’s not a safety issue, then there’s a lot of improvisation, like using cellphones to show text messages or notepads to write things down,” Montoya said. “Truth be told, there aren’t a lot of officers who are capable of speaking in sign language, so it forces us to be creative.”
Other states have created visor cards that let police know drivers can’t hear them during traffic stops.
The cards include symbols so officers can point to why they pulled a person over. People who are deaf or d hard of hearing can also use the cards to point to the kind of help they need.
Those strategies fall short in more complex cases, though, such as when detectives are conducting investigations.
“There are times when we have someone from that community who is a witness, and it’s imperative that we get their information,” Montoya said.
“If you were to be talking about a potential domestic-violence situation, for example, where the only people who may be able to help us translate are the people involved in the emotionally charged situation, it is a challenge,” he said.
‘There’s a lack of awareness’
If the agency fails to provide a qualified interpreter, it could also be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The law generally doesn’t require interpreters for “simple transactions,” such as issuing a citation, or urgent situations, such as when a violent crime is in progress. But not providing an interpreter during “lengthy or complex transactions” could be grounds for a civil rights lawsuit.
A federal Americans with Disabilities Act guide for law enforcement agencies cites “interviewing a victim, witness, suspect or arrestee” who normally communicates using sign language as an example of a complex transaction.
“Some people may tend to say, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal, let’s just write notes back and forth. We don’t need a licensed interpreter, that’s good enough,’” said Beca Bailey, deaf specialist for the commission. “Well, there’s a lack of awareness with that train of thought.”
As commission officials educate officers on legal requirements, they also provide recommendations for how to comply, Bailey said.
Officials have suggested police explore having on-call interpreters available to respond quickly to scenes, for instance. They’ve also proposed using portable tablets for relay services, which allow qualified interpreters or captioners to help via video call.
In delicate cases involving deaf or hard of hearing people who don’t use sign language, police “need to think about the purchasing of equipment and technology that will help alleviate some of those (communication) barriers that exist,” Bailey said.
That technology could include assistive-listening devices that amplify sound and minimize background noise.
“When those things are in place, it’s less likely that those (fatal or violent) incidents will happen,” Bailey said. “Police are more aware of how to communicate with deaf individuals without it becoming a deadly situation.”
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