We The Deaf People

25. Policing issues

Relatively few Deaf people have committed crimes. A much larger number of Deaf people have been victims of crimes. And a disturbingly large number of Deaf people have been victims of police mistreatment and wrongful imprisonment.

The problems begin with communication. Alerted by a neighbor to “suspicious activity,” police discover a young man removing cartons of possessions from a house. The possessions are, in fact, his own, but the police don’t know that. Nor do they understand that the man is Deaf and communicates in ASL. When he tries to explain the situation to them, a misunderstanding swiftly arises, and it ends with the police beating him senseless and hauling him off to jail.

A Deaf woman, frightened by the drunken, violent antics of a visitor, summons police, and is told to wait outside her apartment building, which she does. When the police arrive, she runs towards them, eagerly waving, signing, and gets Tased and hauled off to jail. She is left bruised and injured. The police claim that she deliberately ignored their command, given vocally, to halt. Eyewitnesses dispute that account.

These two incidents actually happened, and the Deaf victims sued the cities and police departments. There have been others . . . many others. Too many others. And the sad thing is that the majority of these beatings and jailings without being provided an interpreter or a means to contact family or a lawyer are preventable.

We do not expect that all police officers understand ASL. But we have a right to expect that police officers recognize that they’re dealing with a Deaf person and respect our language. Many of us keep pads of paper and pens in the glove compartment of our car. But suppose we’re too frightened, being confronted by a furious, impatient highway-patrol officer, to open it?

One possible solution is to have a special code entered in the drivers’ database that displays data when a Deaf driver’s license is run. The code not only identifies the driver as Deaf, but indicates that an ASL interpreter should be summoned.

What is frightening is the knowledge that it could happen to any of us. And most of us, being law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, have had scary scrapes with law enforcement. The worst end up in court, with the Deaf victim suing for having their civil and ADA rights violated.

Our position:

It is not unreasonable for us to expect that a summons to law enforcement for help from a Deaf person gets handled appropriately, that qualified interpreters are summoned as soon as they’re requested or needed, that police have sufficient patience to learn not to overreact when there’s a Deaf person involved, whether as victim or suspect. Any Deaf person taken to jail should have immediate access to a qualified interpreter and telecommunications.