What happens when police pull over a driver, and the driver can’t hear them? What happens when a deaf person needs to report a crime? Those are questions the Town of Amherst Police Department hopes will soon be easier to answer.
Officers will start using video remote sign language interpreters next week to better communicate with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
The pilot program, unveiled Wednesday at the Town of Amherst Police Training Facility, is a collaboration between Amherst Police and Erie County Central Police Services. If all goes well in Amherst, county officials hope to roll it out to other police departments across the county.
“As we know that’s the biggest step, that communication piece, to making all of our community more inclusive,” said Erie County Commissioner of Central Police Services James Jancewicz.
Police will connect with the American sign language interpreters, who work remotely across the country, via a FaceTime-esque app. The app is through Deaf Access Services, a Buffalo nonprofit that provides video remote interpreting.
Two patrol supervisors at a time will have devices connected with the app. If an officer encounters a deaf or hard-of-hearing person in the field, the supervisor will bring the device out to them.
There will also be a tablet connected with the app at the police station for walk-in reports and complaints.
Amherst police had typically used visor cards or even just pen and paper to communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens. A deaf person's family member would also often interpret for them.
“But this shows respect to the individual that is hard-of-hearing or deaf that we’re dealing directly with that person and giving them the opportunity to communicate to the best of their ability, rather than in an ad hoc manner,” said Amherst Police Chief John Askey. “That’s what this is about: showing respect to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and better connecting with them and providing better service.”
Amherst police are far from the only department across the country to use video remote sign language interpreting. Both the New York City and San Francisco police departments have used similar apps over the last year. A Texas police department even hired a deaf officer two years ago.
The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates those with disabilities get the same law enforcement services as everyone else, but deaf activists have called for reforms in recent years after some high-profile police shootings of deaf people across the country.
Deaf Access Services Community Engagement Specialist David Wantuck, who helped train Amherst's approximately 160 police officers on the app, said the deaf community appreciates the department’s effort.
“This gives the ability to build a good bridge between gaps we have had for years and that building is now coming together,” he said. “We hope to see that all across Erie County and with all the other police and emergency response teams. This is already a stepping stone.”