deafness and the police

I’ve heard different things about what sort of issues to worry about with the police. Of course everyone has their own opinions, but I used to have some close connections with the police so here are some thoughts I’ve got.

Depending on where the police are and what sort of people they get to deal with, they will develop a very strong us/them mentality, and a deep suspicion of anything that doesn’t look “right”. The bigger and more populated the city they operate in the worse this gets. So here are some scenarios:

You’re walking along and don’t hear a police officer behind you yelling at you to stop. This can parley into all kinds of possibilities but in general the police get very pissy if you don’t do as they say. What if you’re late for the bus stop and you break into a run; or you’re in a bad mood and when they do catch up with you you whirl around aggressively before realizing they’re the police. And now, this tone having been established, you start to sign, and all they see is more aggressive action… And so on.

You’re pulled over at night and the cop comes up to your window and shines a blinding bright light into the window. They specifically use this as a tactic to put themselves on a better footing in the case of any conflict but of course it means you haven’t got any chance of understanding them even

If you sign and do not speak, there’s every chance the officer can misinterpret any sudden moves. Even just trying to pull out a card from your pocket that explains you’re deaf can be problematic with very jumpy cops.

Let’s say you’ve been handcuffed. There are a couple of possiblities and problems here. If they try to talk to you from where you can’t see them, they can easily decide you’re being uncooperative. If you depend on signing, now you haven’t got any way of conveying your problem to them, and they can still conclude you’re being uncooperative, drunk, on drugs, etc.

Many people express a fear of pepper spray, but I think this is overrated. First of all, pepper spray is supposed to be incapacitating. Sure, if you’re sprayed you may not be able to see (and by extension “hear” or or sign to anyone else) — but a hearing person who is sprayed is in a very similar boat — they’re also incapacitated and not so much capable of any kind of coherent communication either. The cops aren’t expecting anyone who has been sprayed to be particularly coherent or able to do much else besides curling up in a ball. It’s a very unpleasant situation but not more problematic than for anyone else.

Oddly enough, the bright light scenario or outside visual range scenarios are far more likely to result in trauma, injury or even death for a deaf person.

Deaf people have specific legal rights under the ADA, and all of us should konw exactly what they are so we can insist on these rights. These rights will of course not always be honored, but if you don’t know what your rights are you cannot even demand them in the first place. Check here and here for more information.

Unfortunately stories like this are still the norm today. Even more shocking is the story of Carl Dupree, a deaf student who was killed by the police. This might be just another story of police mistreatment of deaf people except for this salient fact: This happened on Gallaudet campus. Since the mid 19th century, Gallaudet has been the nation’s university for deaf students. You would think the police in that area would be very much aware of the issues surrounding the deaf, have a high percentage of signers and otherwise be better able to deal with deaf people in the population, wouldn’t you? Well they don’t and recent incidents this past month make it clear they still have not changed anything — witness the utter lack of officers able to sign or otherwise work around the lack of easy communication.

All food for thought. I also found information on some of the following programs, which I think should be encouraged and adapted across the country — maybe good projects for local advocacy groups to take on?
Rochester, NJ has this probram
Washington DC has this

Potential resources for various organizations to either assist in educating local police or in providing assistance between deaf/police:

Home | The National Domestic Violence Hotline

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The Division of Services for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing provides you with the information, skills and tools you need to achieve effective communication and access to resources in your community for independence and full participation in society.

Hm, and warning visors to help with traffic stops:

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