In the summer of 2016, a 73-year-old Deaf woman suffering from dementia allegedly tried to pull another resident at her skilled nursing facility out of a chair.

After San Francisco police officers arrived at the scene, the officers were told they needed to communicate with the Deaf woman by writing down their orders, but they declined. The woman tried to hit another resident with a pillow, and then she allegedly “lunged” at the officers when they attempted to remove the pillow from her hands. 

Officers then handcuffed the 73-year-old woman, leaving marks or her wrists, and she ended up at San Francisco General Hospital for a multi-hour psychiatric hold. There, doctors concluded, the woman’s behavioral outburst was not due to a psychiatric emergency, but rather “difficulty with communication due to deafness as well as progressing dementia.”

A Department of Police Accountability investigation completed a year later found that instead of soothing the woman, the officers escalated the encounter.

This would seem to be a straightforward problem to remedy. And the Department of Police Accountability kicked off a process to fix it, convening a working group of Deaf and hard-of-hearing advocates, police officers and policy experts in November 2017. After 14 months and numerous back-and-forths with the police department, a final version of the policy was presented to the San Francisco Police Department in February 2019. But the policy’s approval stalled and remains unimplemented.

The policy recommendations are intuitive: One mandates that an officer provide language services — such as an American Sign Language interpreter or any other language aids if a person needs one. Another instructs officers to handcuff Deaf individuals in front of their body, so the person can use sign language while handcuffed.  

After the Department of Police Accountability submitted the final draft to the SFPD in February 2019, little action was taken for five months. In July, Chief Bill Scott decided the policy needed to be reviewed by the California Department of Justice, which is overseeing the SFPD’s yearslong reform effort. Deaf and Hard of Hearing policy, however, is not formally part of that effort. 

Finally, the policy came before the Police Commission on June 3 of this year. Once again, the department attempted to punt.

Catherine McGuire, the SFPD’s civilian director of strategic management, recommended its passage be pushed back to August or, perhaps, later. The policy, she said, needed to be pored over again by department higher-ups, and scheduling issues would not make that possible until August. 

Instead, the police commissioners, frustrated by the extended timeline, scheduled a vote on the new policy on July 15 — 16 months after a final draft had been submitted and two years after work began on changing the policy. If and when the policy gets passed, it may need to be negotiated over by the San Francisco Police Officers Association, the police union, delaying it further.  

To Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, the story of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing policy is a microcosm of the SFPD’s efforts at reform. He said a culture within the department’s Professional Standards Unit has not “adopted the seriousness of the moment” as calls for police reform have grown louder in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. 

“It’s ultimately a question of competence and dedication,” he said. “Do we have the right people in place to do the job?” 

At the June 3 meeting, Hamasaki’s frustration was palpable. 

“You have your knee on the neck of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” he told McGuire, who had been managing the policy’s progress. “This gets delayed and delayed again … and the department keeps making excuses, and it’s been a year.”  

“If somebody died during this time because you couldn’t get it together,” Hamasaki continued, “that would be on your hands — and that would be on mine, too.” 

Hamasaki’s “knee-on-the-neck” comment, a loaded reference to the Minneapolis Police Department killing of Floyd, was criticized by other commissioners for being off-tune. But the frustration of Hamasaki, who had been monitoring the policy’s progress for more than a year, was clear. 

A policy that would allow the San Francisco Police Department to fall in line with the American Disabilities Act and serve a community that is so often ignored seemed to have fallen by the wayside — and, for Hamasaki, yet another example of why the department can be so slow to change. If it can’t change this rudimentary policy, what does it say about policies that are more fraught? 

“A real danger exists in us not doing our work,” Hamasaki told Mission Local. “It’s frustrating that we’re doing our job, the Department of Police Accountability is doing their job, and the mayor’s office is doing theirs. And the department just lets us down, again and again.” 

In an interview with Mission Local, Chief Bill Scott acknowledged that the policy “is taking too long.” He pointed out that it has taken years for other policies to be approved as well. 

“So that is a problem that this department acknowledges,” he said, “and there’s definitely processes and things that we have to streamline.” 

But Scott emphasized that the department is working to do just that and to speed up reform. And in the three and a half years he has headed up the department, the “trial and error” of building those systems has led to delays and some “mistakes.” 

Regardless, he said he was confident the process of approving reforms is being refined and will move more quickly. He mentioned a resolution being introduced on Wednesday at the Police Commission that would cut down “concurrence,” the process by which SFPD higher-ups review a proposed reform, to 45 days. (The Department of Police Accountability criticized the measure for not being broad enough in scope and allowing for further delays.) 

Moreover, Scott said submitting the Deaf and Hard of Hearing policy to the Cal DOJ was the “prudent and the right thing to do,” as he believes the state’s Justice Department has the resources to make the reform process more robust. “That process is valuable, but it does take time to do that,” he said. 

Nevertheless, he called the extended delays “unacceptable.” 

“A lot of people have invested their time and energy — community members, advocacy groups, as well as officers on our side,” he said. “So everybody wants to see the work move forward” more efficiently.

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One Way Street 

The change in the SFPD’s treatment of Deaf residents, advocates told the Police Commission, is long overdue. 

“Overall, the community feels that when reporting incidents to police … they may not get the support or outcome they want because there is a breakdown in communication,” said Melissa McNair, a victim advocate with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, who is fluent in American Sign Language.

And these breakdowns could be disastrous. Although San Francisco has not had a recent police shooting of a Deaf individual, examples from around the country show they can happen easily. In August 2016 near Charlotte, North Carolina, a state trooper shot and killed Daniel Harris, a 29-year-old unarmed Deaf motorist, after Harris failed to pull over and later had a brief interaction with the officer. 

A year later in Oklahoma City, police Tased and shot dead 35-year-old Magdiel Sanchez as he held a metal pipe on his front porch. Multiple neighbors purportedly yelled “He can’t hear you!” to police a minute before police killed him. 

Of course, advocates in San Francisco hope the pending policy will ensure police never shoot a Deaf person. Yet it is also everyday interactions between Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and police that advocates hope to improve. 

Orkid Sassouni, who sits on the Mayor’s Disability Council and participated in the policy working group, said police officers often assume Deaf people can lip-read. “Only 20 percent of the message can be received when you lip read,” Sassouni told Mission Local through an American Sign Language interpreter. 

Generally, she said, when interacting with police officers, “It always ends up being a one-way street of communication.” 

Using an interpreter 

The would-be policy would help to ensure a two-way street. After helping officers identify a Deaf and/or hard-of-hearing individual, the policy lays out, step-by-step, how an officer should communicate with a person. 

The first step is using a card that notifies a Deaf person that free interpreters are available and allows the person to select their preferred communication method. 

In the case of the 73-year-old woman at the skilled nursing facility, the woman would have been able to easily tell officers of her preferred method of communication by pointing to “writing” on the card. The officers would have been required to provide a notepad and pen. If a person selects American Sign Language, an officer must use the language app of their smartphones to pull up a video sign language interpreter. 

As an interaction continues, officers must reassess the effectiveness of the communication method, and officers cannot rely solely on the statements of others without communicating with a Deaf person, as what happened in the case of the 73-year-old. 

The policy also directs officers not to use family members or bystanders as interpreters, unless it’s an emergency. 

‘It felt dismissive to me’ 

Pushing the policy through the working group was a fraught process, according to interviews. “There were police officers who did not exhibit an understanding of the experiences the Deaf community have in their daily lives nor a willingness to even try,” said Susan Gonzalez, a legal advocate at the Deaf Counseling, Advocacy & Referral Agency, or DCARA, a statewide Deaf advocacy nonprofit.

“One officer suggested that we be patient as they were busy dealing with other issues,” Gonzalez said, without naming the officer. 

Aracelia Aguilar, who participated in the working group and is an empowerment director at DeafHope, which advocates for Deaf domestic violence and sexual violence survivors, said in an email that all of the delays told her that “SFPD is aware but Deaf citizens’ safety and access are not a priority.”   

“It felt dismissive to me,” Aguilar said.  

Hamasaki said that, by the time he joined the working group in August 2018, he noticed that there “was intermittent engagement from the department” and among “the community and the advocates, there was a feeling at a certain point that SFPD wasn’t engaged, at the table, helping to move things forward.” 

Gonzalez agreed. “The system that the [Department General Order] had to go through in order to reach the commission is bogged down by oppression, bureaucracy, politics, priorities, and audism,” she charged. 

When Mission Local read the comments to Chief Scott, he appeared saddened. “It pains me to hear those experiences — because that’s not who we are and that’s not who we want to be,” he said. 

Scott emphasized that a balance of community and police input is critical to the policymaking process, and he wants to respect the time and effort that community members dedicate to it. “So if officers aren’t engaged, that’s saying we have the wrong officers in those working groups.”

The chief said repeatedly that he is working hard to refine the “infrastructure” of reform. The department that reviews written policies, he said, has seen “a lot of turnover” in the last two years, which is why he hopes to build an infrastructure. “I’ve been here about three and a half years,” he said. “The department is structured very differently than it was three and a half years ago. Along with the changing structure comes trial and error” and changing personnel. 

Scott said the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing policy sat with the department for five months because there was a lack of clarity about which policies needed to be submitted to the Cal DOJ for review. 

Asked whether the observers of reform should expect to see policies like the Deaf and Hard of hearing policy to move more quickly, Scott said: “That’s what we expect — and we expect to deliver on that.”  

The Police Commission will vote on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Policy on July 15.