How to Deal with Police as a Deaf or Hard of Hearing Person
Jonathan Meister was removing some property from a friend’s house earlier this year, with the consent of his friend, when the police showed up because someone had reported a burglary. Being deaf, he attempted to communicate in sign language to indicate that he couldn’t hear the responding officers — who responded by tasing him and then beating him to the ground for using “aggressive hand signals.” For D/deaf and hard of hearing people, cases like this are very common, and there’s a fear of interactions with law enforcement as a result because they can go very wrong, very quickly.
Actress and Deaf activist Marlee Matlin teamed up with the ACLU to make a “Know Your Deaf Rights” video informing people about their rights, and it’s useful for people with other concerns about police interactions that may need to be addressed early in a stop. For example, a cane user is entitled to use an assistive device for standing and walking if asked to get out of a vehicle, and police must grant this reasonable accommodation. Likewise, autistic people who have difficulty vocalizing have the right to request a more comfortable mode of communication for interactions with police.
The National Association of the Deaf also has some highlights on interactions between members of the D/deaf community and law enforcement, and police officers themselves are working to compile resources to help them better serve their communities.
What do you need to know as a D/deaf or hard of hearing person?
Matlin recommends keeping a card with information about your specific situation in your car visor, so you can pull it out as soon as the officer arrives at your vehicle, without having to reach for your wallet or glove box. On the card, explain the specific nature of your hearing impairment and whether you read lips, need an interpreter (and, if so, what kind of interpreter you need), or need additional services such as CART.
Police officers are not required to provide interpretation services for routine traffic stops, as this is considered an undue burden, but they are required to establish communication by any means possible. Consider using a notebook for written communications, or basic gestures. If you are concerned that the situation is getting confusing and you don’t understand what’s happening, write that you would like to work with an interpreter, and reiterate until your request is granted.
Your family members shouldn’t be pressed into service, nor should you be obligated to provide interpretation services — police officers are responsible for sourcing interpreters or any other assistive devices you need, as long as they are considered reasonable accommodations for the situation. Just as a police officer would need to summon a Spanish interpreter for an interaction with someone who only speaks Spanish, you are entitled to an ASL, Signed English, or other signed language interpreter.
You have the right to refuse a search of yourself, your car, or your home conducted without a warrant. While police officers may pat you down, or glance at the contents of your car, they may not conduct more extensive searches without your permission, or a judge’s warrant. If you say no, make sure your objections are clearly recorded. You also have the right to ask if you are being detained, and, if not, if you are free to go.
If arrested, continue to provide information about your situation and preferred mode of communication to all authorities you interact with. Immediately contact your attorney and request an interpreter. Do not speak with the police until both have arrived. As you interact with the police, keep notes on the names and badge numbers of people you have interacted with, forms you have filled out, accommodations violations and other issues. If you have concerns about a possible rights violation, write down a detailed complaint, including information from witnesses, and then file your written complaint with the internal affairs division or civilian complaints board. Copy your report to the ACLU.
Matlin and the ACLU remind their viewers that protections under the ADA apply to everyone, regardless of citizenship and immigration status. If you’re in the United States as a visitor or without legal documentation, you are still entitled to fair treatment under the law.
Photo credit: Alden Jewell.