How Law Enforcement Misconduct & Weak Policy Harms the Deaf Community

The questionable actions of some — not all — of our nation's law enforcement and their misguided conduct directed to marginalized communities has been an ongoing issue since time immemorial. One community impacted by this certain dilemma is the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

When the words “Law Enforcement and Deaf” are searched, a string of unsettling articles pop up: “Deaf Man Found Guilty After Being Questioned with No Interpreter” “Austin Jailer Breaks Elderly Deaf Woman’s Arm After Misunderstanding at Airport” “Colorado Case Shows Police Aren't Trained To Interact With The Deaf Community” — to list a few. These disturbing stories and wildly dysfunctional behavioral reports by unfit officers signals a significant problem that needs to be resolved, pronto.

Despite government mandates such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — which protocols appropriate conduct for local, state, and federal police — the progress towards correcting this problem seems remiss. Ava, Deafinitely Dope and Students Against Mass Incarceration Club (SAMI) at Gallaudet University are on a mission to ask police departments across the United States two simple questions:

Why is this misbehavior recurring? And how can the problem be rectified?

A still image from footage of a Deaf woman being mistreated by police officers at the airport.

Image Source: The Austin Chronicle

Law Enforcement Misconduct & the Deaf Community

Poor understanding of Deafness combined with uninformed preparedness contribute to the ongoing issue of law enforcement's ill-mannered response when encountering a Deaf person. When police officers and other law enforcement officials are not properly trained, marginalized communities such as Deaf and hard-of-hearing people end up paying the price. When rights are violated and legal safeguards of the Deaf community are overlooked, unfortunate — and sometimes tragic — outcomes ensue.

The friction and frustration that occurs between first responders and the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities is evidence that there is a communication gap that needs bridging. The number of cases involving police and Deaf individuals being wrongfully charged, accused, and worse — killed — continue to rise. This is obviously unacceptable, and it’s now time to implement the solution.

Efforts to reform the communication gap between law enforcement and the Deaf community must come from within police departments. It is the duty of every officer to report any and all misconduct within their departments. Caring to address the issue and taking the necessary steps to do so is imperative. After all, a few hapless officers who fail to treat citizens with respect and human decency should not define an entire organization.  

Contributing Factors to the Problem

With repeated demands for sound institutionalized policy reform, change seems to seldomly occur. Time and again, the police and the criminal justice system fail to grasp the significance of these misconduct issues. Negligence of the matter will surely lead to more ineffective communication, inadequate service, civil rights violations, and lawsuits — all easily avoided with clear policy, and consequence to the officer and their department for noncompliance.

While excuses are plentiful, ranging from insufficient budgets and perfunctory training to limited time and scarce resources, these are not obstacles that should prohibit effective and civilized conduct by our law enforcement officers.

Evidently, communication training for encounters with Deaf people needs more attention and nuance. For officers, encountering a person with a disability cannot be generalized and grouped with an array of neurodiversity such as PTSD, autism, mental illness, and other various developmental issues. Understanding that each disability differs and requires protocol specific to the person and the situation seems logical and a key place to begin.

Image of two police officers learning sign language.

Image Source: Tuscaloosa News

The ADA Angle

Police officers take an oath to serve and protect citizens. Without a thorough understanding of federal laws, such as the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Presidential Executive Order 13347 officers cannot equally serve all citizens — Deaf or otherwise. Though these laws have been in place for decades, they seem to be unknown to many government institutions, including law enforcement.

Many agencies only become educated about the ADA after being found in violation of the law. Such violations rarely escape media scrutiny, drawing negative attention to the agency at fault. Waiting until subsequent repercussions result lacks the proactivity that could prevent harm to both parties.

The majority of ADA complaints made against law enforcement agencies usually arise from incidents of wrongful arrest, failure to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled individuals during an arrest, or inadequate training. In the case that an agency is found to be in violation, they may choose to comply voluntarily or attend federal court to face civil action.

Many times the Department of Justice (DOJ) will investigate police departments for ADA compliance, but these often culminate in settlements where cities agree to adopt new policies and practices for interactions with Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Even when these isolated settlements occur, and police departments or a police officer is presented with options or appropriate steps to take, the impact is minimal. Using these singular incidences as a moment to scale the broader legal guidance for police and other agencies throughout the nation is an opportunity currently being missed.

Image that defines Executive Order 13347.

ADA Requirements for Law Enforcement

Under the ADA, all public entities, including police departments, must be in compliance. The ADA also mandates that Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are entitled to the same services law enforcement provides to anyone else.

According to the ADA website, the ADA requires the following:

  • 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.

  • Only the head of the agency or his or her designee can make the determination that a particular aid or service would cause an undue burden or a fundamental change in the nature of the law enforcement services being provided.

As implied by the ADA, police officers are required to provide effective communication to Deaf people during all law enforcement activities, including arrests, interrogations, and emergency situations. This includes providing auxiliary aids, assistive tools and services, such as sign language interpreters or written materials, to ensure communication is clear.

ADA mandates that Deaf people have the right to receive reasonable accommodations in any event, including an arrest, during ticketing, reporting a crime and so forth. The policies and procedures by law enforcement should obviously not discriminate against Deaf people or any person with a disability, and yet too many reports indicate otherwise. Despite the laws to protect citizens—and the oath taken by law enforcement—ADA laws are often dimissed and officer misconduct persists.

Video Source: YouTube

Deaf Challenges for Law Enforcement

Oral communication is a critical part of an officer’s daily duty, impacting almost every single interaction. From the sound of sirens, to verbalizing “Take your hands out of your pockets” or “Keep your hands on the steering wheel,” it’s easy to see why a Deaf person who fails to heed requests of this nature, may be penalized unjustly.

For police officers conducting an arrest, it can easily be misleading when a person reaches into their pocket, not for a gun out of self-defense — but for a placard that identifies them as Deaf or hard-of-hearing. However, with proper training on how to handle such scenarios, police officers can learn to navigate these issues instead of taking drastic measures.

Interactions between police officers and Deaf individuals are rife with the potential for misunderstandings on either side. And it doesn’t help that most law enforcement officers do not know sign language. Nor is it practical that police officers receive scant guidance on how to comply with the lawful commands when communicating with individuals, Deaf or otherwise.

Image of woman in her car holding a driver is hard of hearing card alongside another image with the back of the card which has suggestions for officers.

Image Source: North Jersey

How the Law Puts Deaf People at a Disadvantage

For situations that demand arrests, the common course of action requires police officers to cuff individuals with their hands behind their back. For Deaf individuals however, doing so violates their rights since they rely on their hands for communication purposes, either through signing, gesturing, or writing.

While law enforcement officers reserve the right to enforce police procedures as necessary, at the very least, they should be trained to communicate that the handcuffs are only temporary and will be removed when they are in a secure area.

Hard-of-hearing individuals may also struggle to communicate with police officers, and their behavior or communication style may be misinterpreted as noncompliance or aggression. Additionally, negative stereotypes and biases can influence police officers' perception of people with disabilities, leading to unfair treatment or even discrimination.

Guidance for Officers & Law Enforcement Agencies

Communication barriers between Deaf communities and police can be dismantled when law enforcement abides to appropriate strategies.

Policy Management

All agencies must obtain a policy on interactions with Deaf individuals. In the event that a policy doesn’t exist, the U.S. Department of Justice provides a model policy specifically for law enforcement. Additionally, familiarize yourself with your agency's instructions on when a certified interpreter is necessary. In the event an interpreter is not present or available, written communication or assistive technology applications that transcribe speech should be known options.

Comprehensive Training

Law enforcement officers must be prepared to adapt their response to account for the vast variety of people they may encounter on any given day or shift. While an officer’s safety is paramount and should never be jeopardized on account of a potentially dangerous suspect, officers must be trained on how to communicate respectfully with all individuals. When they encounter an individual, who may be Deaf or hard-of-hearing, they should know to immediately utilize assistive technology tools to communicate. If for some reason, they cannot use a mobile application, they should contact the department to send out a sign language interpreter for effective communication with the Deaf person.  

American Sign Language (ASL) Basics

Very few officers are fluently conversant in ASL and may have zero experience or knowledge of Deafness or Deaf culture. Aggressive or dismissive behavior by police officers towards Deaf and hard-of-hearing people may stem from a lack of understanding. To ensure that interactions with a Deaf and hard-of-hearing individual is positive for everyone involved, police departments should mandate a class on Deaf awareness that includes sign language basics.

Video Source: YouTube

Assistive Devices

Equipping officers with assistive devices such as Ava’s captioning app will enable them to communicate with Deaf people in real-time — and in different languages. For situations that require urgent attention, officers can also carry handheld vibrating devices that can alert Deaf people to emergency situations. By incorporating assistive devices into their communication methods, police officers can ensure that they are able to effectively communicate with Deaf individuals, reducing misunderstandings and promoting safety for everyone involved.


The Model Policy for law enforcement on communicating with people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing states, "In situations when a non-disabled person would have access to a telephone, officers must provide persons who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing the opportunity to place calls.” CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation), is a speech-to-text interpreting service that serves as a potential solution in these circumstances. Ava’s mobile application also offers speech-to-text and text-to-speech transcription with a translation feature, so any encounter with a Deaf or hard-of-hearing individual should pose zero communication issue.

Video Relay Service (VRS)

Officers need to be familiar with current technology so that they are prepared and able to provide necessary accommodations for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Video Relay Service (VRS) makes it possible for hearing people to communicate with Deaf, hard-of-hearing people, or those who have a speech impediment. With VRS, police officers can interact with the hearing-impaired public by connecting with a sign language interpreter through video technology.

Image of a female and male officer using an interpreting service on their phone.

Image Source: Traducta

Interpreting Services

For simple interactions, such as checking a license, giving directions, or responding to a violent crime in progress, police officers generally don’t need an interpreter when communicating with a Deaf or hard-of-hearing person. For more complex transactions, however, such as an interrogation or interaction that involves extensive questioning, the ADA requires officers to provide an interpreter to Deaf individuals free of charge.

Longer conversations often require an understanding of nuance and complexities that are difficult to convey without an interpreter. Deaf people rely on ASL interpreters to understand what is being said, so having one present is vital. Although most agencies do not have a full-time interpreter on staff, they usually have a contract with a sign language interpreting agency or can contact one 24/7 to provide support as needed.

It’s crucial to be cautious of misunderstandings that may arise in the absence of a qualified interpreter. A nod of the head may be an attempt to appear cooperative, rather than an expression of consent or an admission of wrongdoing.

Video Source: YouTube

Body Language & Communication Cues

When a suspect does not immediately comply with a police command, it’s not uncommon for an officer to assume the person is showing signs of resistance. Since most police officers are conditioned to rely on verbal communication to give instructions and gather information, they may not realize that a Deaf person did not hear the command or request.

In situations where Deaf people are not responsive, police officers may think the individual is ignoring them or being uncooperative, leading to a misunderstanding and potential conflict. Additionally, cultural and language barriers may further contribute to this misconception. Knowing how to pick up on different communication cues and understanding body language signals, officers will be more prepared to interact with disabled people.

Ava for Law Enforcement Communication

For police and law enforcement officers, it’s critical to be aware of the laws that govern how first responders consider people with disabilities and their needs. It can be difficult to quantify how many Deaf people are denied services, or how often their interactions with police turn sour. But, effective communication must be implemented into everyday interactions if we seek to change how the system works and impacts the Deaf community and other vulnerable victims.

The woeful lack of response training and awareness pertaining to Deaf culture and communication with Deaf people within police departments nationwide is concerning. Officers and law enforcement agencies can be advocates for systemic change by simply having assistive tools like Ava on hand that empower easy communication.

Breaking down communication barriers so that all citizens, Deaf and hearing alike, are treated equally, respectfully and safely is a worthy mission that Ava, the students of Gallaudet and the entire Deaf community invite law enforcement to join.

Useful Resources for Police Encounters with Deaf People