Police contacts with deaf subjects: Tips and resources to keep everyone safe

Federal law requires that law enforcement agencies must provide the communication aids and services needed to communicate effectively with people who are deaf


According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost one in 10 people in the U.S. could benefit from hearing aids. About two percent of adults aged 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss. The rate increases to 8.5 percent for adults aged 55 to 64, to 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74, and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older. 

Police interactions with deaf subjects are fraught with the possibility that one side or the other – and possibly both – are misunderstanding the person in front of them. It is uncommon for law enforcement officers to know American Sign Language, and there is woefully little instruction done in our schools about how individuals – deaf or otherwise – should respond to the lawful commands of police officers.

Some encounters between deaf individuals and the police in recent memory have ended in tragedy. Others ended in lawsuits levied against the law enforcement agency. In both cases, people suffered. Here are some considerations for law enforcement agencies seeking to minimize problems that can arise from contacts with deaf subjects. 

Marlee Matlin — who is deaf and the wife of a police officer — teamed up with ACLU and HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) to produce an American Sign Language video to ensure deaf people know their rights when interacting with law enforcement. (PoliceOne Image)
Marlee Matlin — who is deaf and the wife of a police officer — teamed up with ACLU and HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) to produce an American Sign Language video to ensure deaf people know their rights when interacting with law enforcement. (PoliceOne Image)

Avoiding a problem through better understanding

One common scenario is when a deaf person doesn’t respond to verbal directions. There may be an assumption on the part of the officer that the subject is being intentionally non-compliant, when in fact those commands have simply not been heard. 

There have also been instances in which a deaf subject reaches into his or her pocket to get a card that says “I am deaf” and usually has instructions on how to reach an interpreter, but the officer believes instead that he or she is reaching for a weapon. 

Marilyn Weber, who serves as president and CEO for Deaf Interpreter Services, maintains that the very first few moments of a contact can be the most important. 

“The critical moments – when someone might get shot or very upset – are usually in the beginning, before the officer has figured out that the deaf person is actually deaf,” Weber told PoliceOne. “There are certainly deaf criminals, but among the majority who aren’t, they are probably more scared of a policeman or woman than a non-deaf person, at least in the beginning of an encounter because of their fear of being misunderstood. This is a good thing to keep in mind.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that law enforcement agencies “must provide the communication aids and services needed to communicate effectively with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, except when a particular aid or service would result in an undue burden or a fundamental change in the nature of the law enforcement services being provided.”

Some departments have made it policy to use pre-printed signs in order to communicate with hearing impaired subjects. Others have instructed officers to communicate by writing on a piece of paper. Weber said that this is sufficient for very short interactions, but it’s important for officers to understand that English is a very different language than sign language, which has its own grammar, structure and rules. Most deaf people know English as a second language, but typically aren’t as fluent in it as they are in sign language. 

“It’s not OK to use writing for an extended interview or complex issues,” Weber said. 

Generally speaking, for any sort of extended conversation or interview with a deaf subject, Weber advises law enforcement officers to seek to get the assistance of an interpreter.

“Sometimes it’s OK to just issue a citation with no interpreter present, but anything more than that, police need to provide an interpreter,” Weber told PoliceOne.

Weber said that because most police departments don’t have an interpreter available in house, they can contact a company – such as hers – that provides interpreter services 24 hours a day. 

Weber also cautioned against using a deaf person’s companion or family member as an interpreter.

“You might think this is obvious and OK, but it’s not,” she said. “The emotional connection between the two may impede accuracy and full disclosure in a conversation. Get an interpreter instead.”

If an officer does attempt to communicate with a hearing impaired person before an interpreter becomes available, Weber offers several basic tips.

  • You should find an area that’s well-lit and where there’s not very much noise before you begin speaking.
  • You want to make sure you have a deaf or hard-of-hearing person’s attention before you begin speaking by offering a light tap on the shoulder or a wave of a hand.
  • Make sure only one person speaks at a time.
  • Don’t chew gum or cover your mouth when speaking.
  • When you can, use visual aids – such as pointing at a citation or other document – to make your point very clear.
  • Speak slowly.

Weber cautions, however, that not all deaf people can read lips. “Even if they can, lip-reading only provides about 30 to 40 percent accuracy at most. The rest is guesses, via context. It’s very imprecise and shouldn’t be relied upon,” she said. 

Resources are available for police

The U.S. Department of Justice has prepared information for law enforcement agencies available on the Americans with Disabilities Act website and includes the following:

    Communicating with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Officers
    Model Policy for Law Enforcement on Communicating with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
•    Commonly Asked Questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act and Law Enforcement

Marlee Matlin – who is deaf and the wife of a police officer – teamed up with ACLU and HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) to produce an American Sign Language video to ensure deaf people know their rights when interacting with law enforcement. 

“Matlin’s video is oriented mostly towards deaf people, and what they need to know. But one subsection of the site is a list of resources for law enforcement that are quite helpful,” Weber said. 

Weber said that she believes that every police station should have a written set of instructions on how to deal with deaf people available and regular training on the topic. 

“The number of people with deaf or hard of hearing today isn’t as small as you might think, and it’s growing faster and faster as the population ages,” Weber said. “Every policeman and woman should remember in the back of their mind when they pull someone over or serve a warrant that they might come upon a deaf person.”

Finally, remember that when an officer handcuffs a deaf subject, that person’s ability to communicate has been taken away – sign language relies entirely on the ability to make gestures with the hands. Officer safety is obviously paramount and should never be jeopardized by allowing a potentially dangerous subject who should be handcuffed to retain use of their hands, but weigh into your tactics the fact that communicating with a deaf subject who is cuffed becomes all but impossible.

Check out the above resources and talk with your command staff about what the department expects of you when you come into contact with a hearing impaired suspect, witness, or victim. 

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