San Francisco police plan to equip officers with a new tool for interacting with people who are deaf or hard of hearing following complaints over communication barriers between officers and the deaf community.
The San Francisco Police Department is expected to install a video-chatting application on the cellphone of officers this year that will essentially bring an American Sign Language interpreter to the scene of a crime.
Police brass have already rolled out the Language Line Solutions app to officers at Ingleside Station and a few at Mission Station as part of a pilot program, according to police Cmdr. David Lazar.
The tool is also currently available at each police station as well as at the Special Victims Unit and the San Francisco International Airport, but never before have officers been able to videochat with interpreters in the field.
“It’s really our way of trying to increase the level of service we provide the community in terms of language access,” Lazar said. “This enables us to have language not be a barrier.”
Officers would use the app as part of a new policy for communicating with the deaf victims, witnesses or perpetrators of crimes that the Police Commission is soon expected to vote on.
The proposed policy is expected to include step-by-step procedures for officers to follow when interacting with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, such as a reference guide to use during traffic stops.
The changes are part of larger efforts to close language barriers between police and the community. The SFPD currently employs 762 bilingual officers in various languages, including 413 certified bilingual interpreters.
In recent months, the SFPD has assigned bilingual officers, most of whom speak Cantonese in addition to English, to new drop-in centers or substations in Portola and Chinatown.
The proposed policy is the result of a working group that the Department of Police Accountability convened in November 2017 to address “disparities and challenges” facing the deaf community in response to a small number of complaints filed the year prior, DPA Director Paul Henderson said.
“The complaints dealt with challenges that the deaf and hard of hearing had in dealing with law enforcement,” said Henderson, who declined to detail the specifics.
But one could imagine a situation where a domestic violence victim or a driver involved in a traffic collision is deaf or hard of hearing, and can’t accurately explain their side of the story to an officer without the app.
Henderson said the DPA heard complaints during the working group from domestic violence survivors who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“We’ve had several situations involving deaf survivors of domestic violence that we were hoping could have gone better,” said Beverly Upton, director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium.
Upton called the changes “a big step toward inclusivity” not only for the survivors of domestic violence but the deaf community in general.
“It’s a segment of the population that we haven’t been serving well,” Upton said.
DPA Director of Policy Samara Marion said writing might seem like an alternative for officers to communicate, but a person who is deaf or hard of hearing might not “be able to communicate all of the meaning in their way.”
“Writing is not their first language, so to be able to capture what happened it’s so critical for them to be able to sign,” Marion said.
And DPA and police officials both agree that it’s important that information is not only delivered accurately, but quickly.
“There’s a moment in time that will make or break the officer’s discretion over whether to give a ticket or not,” Marion said.
The department currently does not track the number of interactions police have with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but Lazar said there were seven complaints filed against the SFPD regarding language access issues in 2017-18.
The DPA sustained two of the complaints, did not sustain one, found the officers acted properly in two and did not have a finding for one because the complaint was withdrawn. The seventh complaint is pending.
It’s not clear how much the service will cost the SFPD. Lazar said the department already uses Language Line, the app provider, to access spoken language interpreting services over the phone.
“I don’t know what the exact cost is, but I do know that if we use the video conferencing it’s a little bit more money,” Lazar said.
If the commission passes the policy, Marion said the department will have 120 days to roll out training to all officers. The department is expected to train officers to use the app with a training video.
“This isn’t the end of the book,” Henderson said. “It’s the beginning of the next chapter.”