Watch the Hands: Improving Police Interactions with Deaf Subjects

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 handcuffed becomes significantly more difficult.

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Police are called to deal with myriad types of individuals—victims, violators, and witnesses from infancy to infirmity. Individuals may be docile or they may be violent. They may be mentally ill, suicidal, or both. They may be severely disabled and confined to a wheelchair or they may have two black belts in Jiu Jitsu.

Police must be capable of adapting their response to account for the vast variety of people who they may encounter on any given shift.

One group of individuals that officers may encounter is the deaf or hearing impaired. Very few cops are fluently conversant in American Sign Language (ASL)—those who are probably have a relative or friend who has some degree of hearing impairment.

Here are some tips for ensuring that interactions with this group of people result in positive results for everyone involved. I've included a YouTube video that contains 10 relatively simple ASL signs that law enforcement officers can use in contacts with these individuals.

The video has been seen by just over 14,000 people (presumably police officers). I'd like to see that number increased ten-fold.

Establishing Baseline

First, it's important to remember that when an officer handcuffs a deaf subject, that person's ability to communicate has been basically taken away—sign language relies entirely on the ability to make gestures with the hands, and writing on a notebook with cuffed hands can be all but impossible.

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 handcuffed becomes significantly more difficult.

Once contact has been established, the officer has to establish whether or not the person has limited hearing or is completely deaf. This had the potential to impact what tools or tactics an officer has at his or her disposal to establish a line of communication.

In the video included with this column, the eighth sign discussed is asking the question, "Are you deaf, or hard of hearing."

Many deaf individuals have learned how to read lips, but individuals with at least some hearing capacity are more likely to have developed that skill to a conversational level. In either case, don't try to slow your speech to a crawl because that can be more confusing than speaking at regular speed.

Another tactic is to utilize a pad and paper. This is simple and effective, but can only be successfully used for a short period of time before both the officer and the subject become fatigued. For extended interactions or for matters of significant complexity, the written word is not particularly practical.

Further, there are complications when the deaf or hearing-impaired individual is not a native English speaker. They know sign language, but write and read in a foreign language. In such a case, the pad and pen go back in the bag for next time.


The model policy adopted by the IACP—and approved by lawmakers who crafted the Americans with Disabilities Act—states, "In situations when a nondisabled person would have access to a telephone, officers must provide persons who are deaf or hard of hearing the opportunity to place calls using a teletypewriter (TTY, also known as a telecommunications device for deaf people, or TDD)."

This technology is effective when a telephone connection is feasible. TTY is a very cost-effective solution and is likely to be well known to just about every person who suffers from a hearing disability. 

Another potential solution is CART—Communication Access Real-time Translation—which is a speech-to-text interpreting service provided by a variety of vendors. An individual uses a court reporting stenography machine and a computer to capture and display everything that is being said. Such services can range from $100 to $200 per hour.

Interpreting Services

This brings up the employment of on-call in-person sign-language interpreting services.

The IACP model policy states that "a qualified sign language or oral interpreter is one who is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary. Accordingly, an interpreter must be able to sign to the deaf individual (or interpret orally to the person who speech reads) what is being said by the officer and be able to voice to the officer what is being signed or said by the deaf individual."

Such an interpreter is really the optimal solution for interactions between police and the hearing-impaired public, but like CART services, comes with a price tag. Rates can vary due to different languages being requested and mileage required to travel by the interpreter.

Such services may seem expensive, but they are also potentially funded with federal grant dollars. Further, some providers discount their services for government agencies.

Making Accommodations

The number of people who are deaf or hard of hearing is significant, and it's increasing as the population ages. It is estimated that up to 9% of the population has some degree of hearing loss, which means that at some point during an officer's work week they will encounter at least a handful of people who are in this group.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that law enforcement agencies "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."

Officers should find out from the person who is deaf or hard of hearing what type of auxiliary aid or service he or she needs. The ADA says that officers should defer to those expressed choices, unless…

  • there is another equally effective way of communicating, given the circumstances, length, complexity, and importance of the communication, as well as the communication skills of the person who is deaf or hard of hearing
  • doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the law enforcement activity in question or would cause an undue administrative or financial burden; only the Agency head or his or her designee may make this determination.

Check out the video above, evaluate your options, and ensure that your agency is in compliance with the ADA's rules for police interactions with deaf or hard of hearing individuals.

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