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Police Interaction and the Deaf Community

By on May 22, 2014 | 2 comments

As regular readers know, I enjoy discussing the interactions between police and ordinary citizens. I care about those interactions because the stakes can be very high. People can be arrested, or even killed, when a police encounter goes south.

So I was very interested when a video by Marlee Matlin came across my desk. Marlee Matlin is a deaf actress, as well as the wife of a police officer. Her video is directed to the deaf community, and gives good advice on how, during a police encounter, individuals who are deaf can do their best to escape unscathed because of, or despite, their unique challenges. Even if you are not deaf, the video is well worth a look:


For those unable to view the video, Ms. Matlin recommends that as soon as possible the office is informed about the citizen’s disability. Once the officer has arrived and sees the deaf person’s hands, then indicate in some way the deaf status. If an arrest occurs, Ms. Matlin recommends trying to have handcuffs placed on the front so the person can still provide limited communication (standard policy is for people to be cuffed with their hands at their back).

Ms. Matlin talks about what causes problems during an interaction between a deaf person. Deaf people may use their hands or even touch to communicate, which can raise the tension of police officers, who tend to be unhappy when they are touched or when someone doesn’t respond to a verbal command.

In one way I was frustrated that a deaf person would have to change their behavior from what comes naturally to them given their culture and/or disability. It seems unfair for the officer to initiate the interaction and dictate the mechanisms of that interaction.

Realistically, though, these guidelines are for everyone’s safety. The officer does deserve to be safe during a stop, and a citizen stopped by a police officer also deserves to a respectful, calm interaction. Ms. Matlin’s advice seems well-suited for all those goals.

Still I was curious how often police officers interact with members of the deaf community, and what kind of training officers receive. I reached out to Patrick Michaud of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) Pubic Affairs department and asked him about the trainings SPD receives in dealing with the deaf community. I also showed him the video and asked him if it was good advice for people in Seattle.

Patrick wrote back, very excited to talk about the issue. Patrick told me he thought the video was well done and certainly a good model to follow. Patrick also pointed me to Section 15.1250 of the Seattle Police Department Manual, which outlines the policies and requirements of officers when encountering with deaf people (as well as non-English) speakers.

It’s a good document but there are a couple of points worth noting. The first is that the requirement for an interpreter will only trigger if the police officer knows about the need for an interpreter. Ms. Matlin recommended a sign in the car’s visor indicating deaf status and I think it’s a great idea. She also recommends carrying a card in a wallet or purse and while I think it’s a good idea, it can be risky to reach for a pocket in the initial stop. Anything that lets someone keep their hands where the police can see them is preferred.

The other point in the document is that the officer is supposed to wait until an interpreter is present before an interrogation. Even if police do follow that, a citizen could still volunteer information while waiting for an interpreter to arrive. As I’ve written before, the best practice when dealing with the police is 1) declining to volunteer information, 2) declining to answer questions, and 3) asking for an attorney or asking to leave in response to express questioning.

I also asked Patrick about continued trainings in dealing with individuals with disabilities, as well as how often an officer does encounter someone with a physical disability. Patrick told me that officers don’t receive additional trainings beyond the academy about dealing with people with disabilities, but when he was a patrol officer he encountered someone with a disability about once a week. Patrick made the point that officers have to be proficient at dealing with people with disabilities because they are encountered fairly regularly in an officers’ line of work.

This seems like an important issue rife with potential for headaches or even tragedy so I do think officers should receive supplementary training on it. Nevertheless I am gratified police are aware of the need for, and have, policies and procedures for interacting with individuals with disabilities.

If you know of members of the deaf community, or just people interested in the subject of police/handicap relations, I urge you to share the information here. The chances that an encounter spirals into something unfortunate are significantly lessened when everyone knows their rights and responsibilities.

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  • Lisa Runyan

    Very informative video! Thanks for posting this Noah! Although I am obviously not deaf or HH, I am genuinely interested in deaf culture and their community.

  • Brooke

    I studied at Gallaudet University (the only University for the Deaf in the US). I can’t overstate enough that having someone to kind of sort of fill in for a translator until one can be found would be terrible in too many ways. American Sign Language is a language first in and of itself, and it needs to be translated by only an interpreter. It doesn’t matter how well someone can read English. ASL is a language that uses the whole body, always the face, and not just the hands. This is really problematic when it comes to FST’s. People who use ASL are very expressive with their movements just like people who are classically trained in Theater. Also, most folks who are passionate about the Deaf culture resist the idea that not hearing is any disability at all. They shouldn’t HAVE to have a special card, or anything else. To the Deaf culture, being Deaf is at the same level of disability as having two feet. None at all.

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