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Communicating with the Police

by Branden Huxtable

Originally published in the October 1995 issue of the CSCDHH GA Newsletter

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You are outside on a bright mid-summer afternoon. The trees and flowers sway gently in the wind. The birds fly past, may sing too, don’t know. Someone nearby plays the guitar, but who knows if it’s good or bad. The traffic silently whizzes by. The crosswalk signal has been flashing DONT WALK for some time now, so you wait rather than cross. As you look up, the traffic light turned from green to yellow.

Suddenly, someone pushes you against the light pole, runs across the street and disappears in an alley. The traffic starts moving again. As you collect your thoughts, you realize the guy had snatched your purse. You start to panic. Money, credit cards, keys. Your eyes dart anxiously around as you try to find help when you spot a police car. You wave your arms and the car pulls over. What are the chances that the police officers understand how to communicate with you, a deaf, deaf-blind, or hard of hearing person?

As it turns out, not much more than anyone else.

Police officers must deal with a wide variety of people everyday, sometimes even more than an average person would. At any given day, they could encounter non-English speakers, people with disabilities, people with hidden injuries as well as deaf and hard of hearing people. The sheer number of special groups can be overwhelming. What they learn about specific people, they learn as it happens while "walking the beat," rather than through formal training. So, what one police officer knows, the next may not necessarily know. This is true not only between different counties and precincts but also within a precinct.

Doug Hansen, commander of the Basic Law Enforcement Academy, says that law enforcement training in Washington state is very fundamental. Every police officer in this state is required to complete 440 hours, approximately three months, of classroom training covering the minimum of what a police officer should know. Everything is taught through lecture series rather than hands-on. Among other things, they teach communication skills in an effort to eliminate any misunderstandings and make trainees aware of any potential problems they may encounter, whether face to face or via the phone. Due to limited time and financing, Washington state’s law enforcement training program does not offer specialized training in relation to communicating with special groups, such as foreign language speakers, people with disabilities or deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing people.

Several precincts, however, require more training beyond the basic law enforcement training program. Others may not. Officer Sean O’Donnell from the Office of the Chief of Police in Seattle says Seattle adds three or four more weeks of training specific to the Seattle area, then four months of field work. If the police officer passes evaluation, the officer is placed on probation for a year before becoming a full-fledged police officer. Hearing impairment, as with any other specialized groups, is discussed out in the field.

So, what can the deaf, deaf-blind or hard of hearing person do? Because the police officer must be taught as with anyone else, anything the person can do to help the police officer will help that person. Unfortunately, when one is panicking or emotionally upset, even slightly, the person may have a hard time thinking clearly. Valuable time can easily slip away while the police officer tries to determine the nature of the situation. In an effort to communicate better with police officers, below is a list of dos and don’ts to help in difficult situations, especially during emergencies.


· Always keep your hands in front in full view because the police officer does not know your intentions. If you need to reach for anything, move slowly so that the police officer knows what you are doing.

· When talking to a police officer, first communicate to the police officer that you cannot hear. Pointing to your ears and shrugging or voicing that you cannot hear is adequate.

· Then, inform the police officer how you want to communicate. Ask for an interpreter (the law requires that an interpreter be provided when requested). If you prefer, use paper and pencil, face to face communication, lipreading or whatever else you are most comfortable with.

Brian Howland, from the Communications Division at the Seattle Police Department, stressed the importance of "how" to report a crime or accident, especially if time is critical. If you’re a victim of a crime or accident:

· First, always tell the police officer what the crime or accident is. Say "I’ve been robbed," "I’ve been beaten" or "I need first aid." Do not start by describing the scene, your name, how you feel, where you live or any other details. The sooner you tell the police officer what the situation is, the sooner the police officer can dispatch the right team (ambulance, fire engine, specialized police officer). The police officer can make the call before you give details. This is especially true when making 911 calls.

· Second, give the police officer any important details about the crime or accident - describe who, what, where, when. Describe the suspect. Describe what happened. Describe when it happened. These details help the police officer determine what to do. Leave other details not related to the situation, such as your name and address, for later.

· Finally, answer any questions the police officer may have. Keep the answers brief and avoid rattling on about irrelevant details.

Communication will be slow. The faster you can give important accurate information, the sooner the police officer can respond.


· Don’t make any sudden wild gesturing. Police officers have a dangerous job and are always on guard. If a police officer is unaware that you cannot hear, your signing may easily be misinterpreted, perhaps as a gang signal, and will make the police officer nervous.

· Don’t play stupid to get out of a ticket. The police officer knows if you can drive a car, you are smart enough to know what is happening. Playing stupid will only make the police officer mad.

· Don’t play games with the police officer. Lt. Jack McDonald, Administrative Aide to the Chief of Police in Bellevue, said that police officers should not be treated any differently from anyone else. It’s all in the attitude. If you treat the police officer as a regular person, the police officer will also treat you as a regular person. If you try to play games, you will make the situation worse. Of course, some police officers are jerks. If the officer was discourteous, report it to the police station, and the situation will be investigated through internal affairs. The police station will help in any way they can. Keep in mind, however, unfair tickets are a different situation and should be reviewed normally through the court, not through police stations.

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