Police officers ask people to stay out of the security area. Photo by Marta Franco

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.

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. Great article. I’m the Deaf gay victim of a violent premeditated assault that resulted in exacerbated PTSD and chronic pain. The SFPD knew I was deaf and repeatedly screamed in my face – multiple officers at different locations. I had multiple meetings at the SVU and was also repeatedly screamed at in my face by the first Sgt assigned to my case. Never once was I offered an interpreter or a single better method of communication other than trying to read lips. Homophobic ADA Williams said no to the felony assault warrant the SVU asked for and blamed me for being assaulted. She didn’t even look at the evidence. I have documentation for all of this, of course, as I’ve had to show countless lawyers, cops, reporters, etc. The cops in SF treat Deaf and HoH people like shit. No surprises there.

    I tried to get a restraining order against the assailant. The only lawyer I could find in time was nakedly homophobic and repeatedly screamed in my face. He saw “ASL” written in the texts between myself and the assailant prior to the assault and he screamed in my face “what is this ASL!? What is this ASL?!” as if it were a drug – he knew already I was deaf. He refused to not cover his mouth when he spoke – even with hearing aids, reading lips is necessary. He repeatedly screamed at me throughout the afternoon and blamed me for, frankly, everything. The next day in court his associate – wearing foundation that was 5 shades lighter than his face, looking like a clown and wearing lifts – was intimidated by the assailants two lawyers who then made me sign a mutual non criminal restraining order. He said if I didn’t sign it and lost in court I’d have to pay the assailants legal fees. It wasn’t for another year I learned that’s illegal. If you aren’t granted a restraining order in court you aren’t additionally penalized by having to pay for the other person’s lawyers – which my homophobic ableist lawyer knew when he made me sign the completely BS document. He then told me “my father is hard of hearing so I understand what’s it’s like.” This is naked ableism and shows he didn’t take me seriously as a deaf person. This would be like me saying “I met a black Jewish dyslexic woman once so I totally get it.” He said “it’ll be $1,000.” Then the bill came and it was $1,500. Getting him to send the bogus mutual non criminal restraining order took 6 months and multiple phone calls. He refused to tell me why it took so long after months of saying he was sending it. They padded the bill with BS, knowing their client was a deaf and disabled poor gay man who had been assaulted. When I called to file a complaint against them I was repeatedly asked “how did you know they were yelling at you?” This is disgustingly ableist. An infant knows when they’re being yelled at – and my hearing aids were $30K (more discrimination against the deaf). He refused to believe I could know when I was being yelled at. And these people went to law school. Christ.

    Thanks to the overarching influence of Alexander Graham Bell, many Deaf people have been shamed and bullied and forced for years to be made to mimic speech – erasing Deaf culture and ASL (one of thousands of sign languages used throughout the world for hundreds of years). Prior to AGB, there were Deaf businesses, churches, residential schools. In destroying ASL he destroyed all of that and forced most Deaf people into a life of languageless poverty. Prior to COVID only 48% of deaf adults were employed full time.

    During my meeting with the Victim Services Dept at the DA office Melissa McNair told me I spoke “so well for a deaf person.” This is patronizing AF. Her colleagues then told me I had already tried every resource they could suggest for me. Their office is useless and clearly powerless. Who are they possibly helping? Obviously it isn’t poor deaf gay victims of violent and premeditated sexual assault that result in exacerbated PTSD and chronic pain.

    At CCSF the Disabled Students Support Services advisor I was assigned refused to grant me an interpreter for class – even though she knew I was deaf and she herself knew ASL. I told her that was discrimination against the the deaf – because it is – and she dug in her heels and told me to go to Berkeley City College instead. This woman also thinks she’s an ally, when it’s clearly performative at best. It’s also a violation of the ADA and whatever education laws apply. But obviously the onus falls on the deaf person every single time.

    Hearing people are the gatekeepers to the resources Deaf/HoH people need. Hearing people are granted great influence over Deaf lives because the presumption is we aren’t capable. This is stark ableism/audism.

    Reading lips is exhausting and the most ineffective way to communicate with a Deaf person. It forces the onus of communication completely on the deaf person – just like all my meetings with the grossly inept SFPD and SVU – all of whom knew I was deaf but via gross arrogance and ineptitude decided I wasn’t – though they had all the documentation and weren’t themselves board certified audiologists, to my knowledge. The ADA refused to even meet with me – though obviously in person meetings would be best for a deaf person.

    If you want to know about how the cops (and other authorities) treat Deaf people like shit, how about you ask us?

    I’m happy to pour all the tea.

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  2. There are some excellent members at the SFPD academy who completely understand the rule of law, what is required of the department and know exactly how to bring it forward. It’s unfortunate that these bright lights are not being prevailed upon to resolve this issue.

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  3. Unfortunately, this attitude towards deaf and hard of hearing is not limited to the police.

    When my late wife was at UCSF, I found many of her doctors condescending to her needs for being informed of her treatment. At one point three doctors were meeting with her, myself, and her ASL translator in her room.

    After repeatedly demanding that the speak one at a time so that the translator could explain to my Rita what they were saying, I finally ordered them out of her room. They just kept talking over one another so that the translator had difficulty conveying the information to her.

    Secondly, every time Rita hit the call button, the desk clerk would respond with a question of the need of the patient. Unfortunately, she could not hear the desk clerk. even after repeated times that I told them to place a note on the board to advise that patient is deaf and to just respond to her call.

    Thankfully, the kitchen staff and the cleaning personal understood this when I explained the situation to them.

    Whenever the needed to enter into her room the would reach in and flashed the overhead lights on and off so that she would know they were entering her room.

    Too bad the so-called professionals who should have known better could not get It into their heads to show her the same amount of respect that the downstairs staff always showed her.

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  4. It seems like there are too many involved parties that get in each other’s way for anything to get done.

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  5. When the hired help slow walk every reform project we assign them, ,then it is time to fire the hired help, rework the job description and rebuild the operation from the bottom, and rehire people committed to the new mission.

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    1. Agreed. If they can’t get it together in three years to pass and implement a fairly simple, uncontroversial procedure, then the whole system is rotten, to the core. This is not a police department any more. It’s an absurdist play run amok

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