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Law Enforcement and the Deaf:

"The author of this paper, Shad Canestrino, is a law enforcement officer, currently employed by the Lodi Police Department (California). He has been so employed for about 11 years and is currently assigned as a School Resource Officer at a local high school. Officer Canestrino spent about 8 years on Patrol and has worked a variety of special assignments. Some of the other assignments include Special Investigations Unit, General Investigations Unit, Bicycle Patrol, and Major Accident Investigation Team. Officer Canestrino also serves as a part-time instructor for a high school Administration of Justice Academy."

Shad Canestrino
November 10, 2007

Is the Law Enforcement Community Blind to the needs of the Deaf Community?



 The current trend of local law enforcement agencies across the United States, since the 1970's, has been toward a style of policing known as "Community Oriented Policing."  This style seeks to involve community members and community based organizations in both identifying crime problems in a community and determining how best to resolve those problems.  Another large component of community oriented policing is empowering the people, by educating them about crime prevention and other self-help methods, to create a better quality of life in their communities.  However, despite these efforts, the law enforcement community may be unintentionally shortchanging a segment of the population, the Deaf community, that can benefit from the programs and services provided by community oriented policing. 


Statistical information gathered from a variety of sources indicates that 5 percent to 10 percent of the population in the United States is deaf or hard of hearing, and the percentage of Americans who have hearing disorders caused by old age is increasing.  Knowing that 1 out of 20, or as a many as 1 out of 10, people in the United States may have a hearing disorder, is the law enforcement community doing enough, or anything at all, to assure that members of the Deaf community are receiving a comparable level of service to those that are not hearing impaired?  Some police departments have equipped their communication centers with telecommunication devices for the deaf, some maintain a contact list of local people that are certified (and that does not mean that they are qualified) to translate in sign language, and some departments offer incentives, typically in the form of additional salary, for officers that learn foreign languages including sign language.  Is that enough?


The U.S. Department of Justice has reviewed the American with Disabilities (ADA) act and how it relates to law enforcement, and has published a guide for law enforcement agencies.  The guide includes recommendations on how to best serve the Deaf community and how to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The guide from the U.S. DOJ is entitled Communicating with People who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing:  ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Officers.  The guide discusses the requirements per ADA, provides recommendations for law enforcement agencies and how to comply with those requirements, recommends training for individual officers and provides scenarios to illustrate what actions may be appropriate for a given situation.  The following are some excerpts from that guide.

The ADA 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.

·        Agencies must give primary consideration to providing the aid or service requested by the person with the hearing disability.

·        Agencies cannot charge the person for the communication aids or services provided.

·        Agencies do not have to provide personally prescribed devices such as hearing aids.

·        When interpreters are needed, agencies must provide interpreters who can interpret effectively, accurately and impartially.

Officers may find a variety of communication aids and services useful in different situations…

·        Speech supplemented by gestures and visual aids can be used in some cases.

·        A pad and pencil, a word processor, or a typewriter can be used to exchange written notes.

·        A teletypewriter (TTY, also known as a TDD) can be used to exchange written messages of the telephone.

·        An assistive listening system or device to amplify sound can be used when speaking with a person who is hard of hearing.

·        A sign language interpreter can be used when speaking with a person who knows sign language. (U.S. DOJ, 1-2)

The U.S. DOJ even provides a model policy regarding how law enforcement agencies can better communicate with the deaf and hearing impaired.  The model policy can by copied or used as a guide when writing policies at the local police agency level.  Are these recommendations being followed by local police agencies?


Let's take a look at what has been done at one local law enforcement agency.  The City of Lodi, in California, is an agrarian based community in San Joaquin County in the Central Valley of California.  It has a population of about 65,000 people and its own municipal police department.  The police department has 78 authorized sworn positions and a little over 100 employees.  The police department also runs its own dispatch center.  The dispatch center is capable of receiving "9-1-1" calls from teletypewriters (TTY systems), but it is up to the individual dispatcher to recognize the tone, described as a "tweedle," by these machines and to activate their own teletypewriter system in order to receive and respond to the person in need of assistance. (from phone interview with LPD Dispatcher)   The Lodi PD dispatch center does not currently maintain a contact list of available American Sign Language or Signed English interpreters.  However, one currently employed sworn officer is capable of translating.  That officer is due to retire from the department in a few months.  The Lodi Police Department Policy and Procedure Manual does not have policy specifically detailing how to deal with those that are hearing impaired.  The current Memorandum of Understanding between the City of Lodi and the Police Officers Association of Lodi recognizes proficiency in American Sign Language as one of three languages for which an officer will receive a monetary incentive; currently set at $200.00 dollars per month.


What do members of the deaf community say about their interactions with members of the law enforcement community?  In a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, fifty-one members of the Deaf community were interviewed following their review of videos of sexual assault scenarios.  The results showed some common themes.  "Although police were viewed as a source of help, many who had contacted police were frustrated by their experience." (Obinna, Abstract)  The study also showed that "particular concern among victim service providers was a lack of understanding and training in the law enforcement community regarding how to investigate and provide services to deaf victims of sexual assaults." (Obinna, Abstract)  In another article published in the Iowa News, members of the Deaf community expressed concern that law enforcement officers, for the most part, lack an understanding of how best to communicate with members of the Deaf community.  In the article a resident of Omaha, Nebraska, Jerry Siders, described an incident where he was pulled over by a law enforcement officer due to expired vehicle registration.  Siders said, "I decided to get out of the car, and the policeman put his gun right up to my face." (Dalton, 1)  "I pointed to my ears and he knew I was not a dangerous person." (Dalton, 1)  For Siders that contact with a law enforcement officer started out as a scary experience, but was quickly deescalated as the officer realized that Siders had a hearing disability.  Siders also described a second incident where he was involved in a traffic collision and the officer initially listened to the other driver, who was not hearing impaired, and almost completely ignored Siders.  Siders was frustrated about that encounter because the officer seemed to be ignoring him.  "It took time to make him understand," Siders said. (Dalton, 1)  Siders did not express any hard feelings overall.  He said, "I have no negative feelings about police officers.  I know they have their jobs to do and policemen don't want to shoot." (Dalton, 2)


Some argue that law enforcement agencies that profess to be embracing the philosophies of community oriented policing do so in rhetoric only.  Those agencies that are making sincere attempts to form partnerships in their community for the purpose of providing services, reducing crime and improving the quality of life may be ignoring, albeit unintentionally, certain social communities within their geographical community.  Members of the Deaf community are one of those social communities that law enforcement agencies may be neglecting.  There are laws pertaining to how public service agencies need to provide services to all citizens, including those with disabilities, and there are specific recommendations available to law enforcement agencies on how to better serve the Deaf community.  Who checks-up on local police departments to assure that they are meeting the needs of the deaf and hearing-impaired members of their community?  A review of the City of Lodi Police Department would seem to indicate that there are some services in place to specifically address the needs of the hearing impaired, but it would also seem that more could be done.  Members of the Deaf community, as a whole, seem to be supportive of the law enforcement community, but frustrated by their contacts with police officers because of communication difficulties.


In the end, I believe training would benefit both the Deaf community and the law enforcement community.  Law enforcement officers would benefit from having some basic understanding of the needs of those with hearing disabilities and they would benefit from learning some basic hand signs to communicate the most common phrases or concepts encountered during a traffic or pedestrian stop.  Many police departments already require officers to learn basic phrases in Spanish, or other languages, pertaining to traffic and pedestrian stops.  The Deaf community would benefit by learning what actions on their part might cause a police officer to become concerned or even hostile.


People who immediately exit their vehicle during a traffic stop, sudden and rapid hand movements and reaching into a pocket to retrieve a notepad (or possibly a weapon in the officer's mind) are all actions that will immediately cause concern for a police officer because they are also actions associated with those people who may become combative.  I believe police officers want to provide the highest level of service possible to all members of the community and, with a little training, preparation and understanding, it is possible to provide a high level of service to members of the Deaf community.




1.  Lodi Police Department (2006), Lodi Police Policy Manual, Lodi, Ca.

2.  Lodi Police Department (2004), MOU, City of Lodi and POAL, Lodi, Ca.

3.  Jones, Robert, D. (1993). FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, The, bnet Research Center,

4.  Dalton, Sunshine (2007), The deaf face challenges when interacting with law

     enforcement, SW Iowa News,


5.  Obinna, J. (2005), Understanding the Needs of the Victims of Sexual Assault in the

     Deaf Community, US Dept of Justice,

6.  U.S. DOJ (2006), Communicating with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing:

     ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Officers, US DOJ,


Other web page references used






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