Pandemic masks make police interaction with deaf people even harder

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Capital News Service

LANSING — In 2005, David Stuckless attended the Detroit Police Training Academy. 

Looking back now, he said the few hours of deaf training were a “complete joke.”

It’s not about the Detroit academy specifically. Rather, it’s a system that needs reform, said Stuckless, a managing partner at Michigan Interpreting Group in Birmingham. 

The Department of Civil Rights said that 7.4% of Michigan’s population in 2018 identified as deaf, deaf/blind or hard of hearing. 

Civil Rights Director James White used to be an assistant police chief in Detroit. He said policing is “tremendously lacking” in sign language interpretation.

The problem was exacerbated once people began wearing masks, as deaf people could no longer rely on lip-reading, he said. 

Jenna Giesey is the president of the Michigan Deaf Association, located in Troy, which is initiating the Clear Mask project.

Giesey said more than 6,000 masks, which allow a wearer’s lips to be viewed, have been donated to Michigan residents who interact with deaf people in person. 

There have been instances where a deaf person was killed in an interaction with law enforcement.

In 2000, former Detroit police Officer David Krupinski killed Errol Shaw Sr., a Black man who was deaf and mute. Shaw was holding a rake above his head, and Krupinski didn’t know that Shaw was unable to hear his orders to drop the rake. 

When Shaw didn’t drop the rake, Krupinski shot him twice.

Giesey said some such situations are caused by a police officer’s inability to know how to communicate with a deaf individual or to recognize that a person is deaf.

She said that a deaf person’s failure to respond to commands, being unable to speak or misunderstanding instructions can provoke an officer.

Sometimes signing or gesturing too much can be seen as aggressive, which can escalate a confrontational situation. 

Giesey said police departments should have at least two interpreting agencies ready on call to provide interpreters.

They should “be prepared to help all members of the community you swear to protect,” she said. 

Warren Police Commissioner William Dwyer said a Warren officer who knows American Sign Language assists in annual training sessions at the police department. 

The department contracts with the Global Interpreting Services in Clinton Township for services, he said.

He said interpreters called into the department must be qualified through a training process.

Some of the biggest problems in sign language interpreting and law enforcement are lack of education, biases and lack of a process for acquiring interpreters.

It’s a common misconception that deaf people can communicate just using written English, he said. But grammar in American Sign Language and English are vastly different.

Some deaf children don’t receive quality language education early enough, said Stuckless, a certified interpreter for 29 years who works primarily in and around Detroit.

Stuckless also there can sometimes be biases or errors in interpreting. 

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement agencies to provide necessary communication aids for deaf people.

However, the law doesn’t define who a qualified interpreter is. 

As a result, agencies often hire the cheapest interpreter instead of the most qualified one, Stuckless said.

In Michigan, interpreters must have certification and register with Michigan interpreting agencies. 

To be a legal interpreter, an interpreter needs National Interpreter Certification and 40 hours of legal training.

Many qualified interpreters are unable to fill their schedules and have switched to video interpreting because cheaper interpreters are preferable, Stuckless said.

That system is oppressive, he said, because it gives deaf people “just enough to get by, but never enough to get ahead.” 

With relay services, deaf people can use their phones to communicate with those around them. 

Video relay services connect deaf people to a live interpreter, and then the interpreter connects to the third party the deaf person is talking to. 

Stuckless said many law enforcement agencies don’t have relationships with interpreters from an emergency management standpoint.

Matt Saxton, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said police work is fluid and must move swiftly if violence is happening and can’t wait to call in an interpreter. 

“Unfortunately, we cannot carry around an interpreter in our car that can pop out when needed,” he said.

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