Members of deaf community express concerns about Seacoast police interactions
PORTSMOUTH — Members of the deaf community met with police officers representing five Seacoast departments Thursday evening to discuss effective forms of communication in emergency situations.
Chris Emerson of Greenland spearheaded the meeting and helped lead a discussion about traffic stops, service dogs, arrests, lockdowns and public emergencies.
Through an interpreter, Emerson said asking a deaf person if they can read lips is ineffective, and suggested using a pad of paper and pen to communicate during a typical traffic stop.
“Everybody knows how to gesture, right? I mean, you can just indicate through gesturing and miming that somebody maybe needs to show you their license or that they were driving too fast. Using gestures is really helpful, but asking someone to read lips is typically not that helpful and not that useful,” Emerson said.
Those in attendance wanted to know if there is a database police can access that shows the deaf people in the area who are licensed to drive.
Sgt. Greg Jordan of Newmarket Police Department said the Department of Motor Vehicle database has the most extensive list, even though local departments have databases of information based upon what individuals provide to them.
Capt. Frank Warchol of the Portsmouth Police Department said police don’t really know who is driving the vehicle until they reach the driver’s side window, and some form of communication begins.
“That’s when the officer is going to figure it out, and they’re going to say, ‘I got to figure this out because I don’t sign or I have a hard time communicating,’” Warchol said. “Chances are we’re not going to know until we have that initial contact with the person who is in the car.”
Warchol said if a deaf person has a service dog, and they are arrested after a traffic stop, police need to know where to take that animal. Most dogs taken in during traffic arrests end up at the local shelter until their owner can claim them, Warchol said.
Emerson and others pointed out the importance of making a legal interpreter available once an arrest is made. There are now virtual reality interpreters available 24/7, Emerson said.
“I would hope the police would have that available to them, so if you are in a remote area, or a rural area, that does not have quick and ready access to an on-site interpreter that you would have access to a VRI system, or have that in place so you are ready for that,” Emerson said through an interpreter. Hospitals use VRI services for deaf individuals seeking medical treatment.
Jola Leary, of Northeast Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in Concord, said state law requires police to bring in an interpreter if a deaf person seeks legal counsel. She emphasized that family members should not be used to interpret legal concepts.
Officer Jamie Cormier of the Greenland Police Department said the best thing deaf individuals can do to protect themselves in public emergency situations is to be proactive in advance.
“I would suggest going back to your community and let your local PD know where you live, so when they come to your residence, they are ready to communicate,” Cormier said.
To learn more about Northeast Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, visit www.ndhhs.org.