Oakdale settlement spotlights communication gap between cops, deaf

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Alan Read
Alan Read filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights after he said the Oakdale Police Department repeatedly failed to provide a sign language interpreter during an after-arrest interview and while he spent 48 hours in jail.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

A Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation into how an east metro police department treated a domestic assault suspect highlights a problem many hearing-impaired people experience when they interact with police.

State officials Tuesday announced a settlement to resolve a probable cause finding of disability discrimination by Oakdale police when officers failed to provide an interpreter for a deaf man before and after his arrest.

Alan Read, 58, of Prior Lake, was born deaf. He had requested an American Sign Language interpreter to communicate with Oakdale officers when they arrived at his home after a domestic dispute call on Aug. 10, 2013. Instead, they communicated via hand-written notes.

Police took Read to the Washington County Jail where he stayed for 48 hours, repeatedly asking for a sign language interpreter but never getting one, he said.

"They were trying to force me to write back and forth or do some gesturing," Read said Tuesday through a sign language interpreter. "Which was not successful at all."

Read said he did not understand a written copy of his Miranda rights either and told police he wasn't confident in his writing skills.

A Department of Human Rights investigation concluded the Oakdale Police Department discriminated against Read based on his disability.

The investigation found the officer interviewing Read in jail knew about his disability but continued the interview without an interpreter, telling Read, "I don't have all morning" to wait for an interpreter, according to a memorandum released by the department.

The probe also found that despite the officer's 15 years of experience, she wasn't aware of telecommunications and interpreter services that could be available for deaf and hard of hearing inmates.

Oakdale police paid $30,000 in the settlement to Read. The department also agreed to update its policies on deaf and hard of hearing services, provide training to staff and designate a deaf and hard of hearing coordinator.

Disability rights advocates say despite a growing deaf and hard of hearing population in Minnesota, it's not uncommon to receive complaints about lack of accommodation from police departments and jails.

It's particularly common in incidents where one party is deaf and the other is not, said Rick Macpherson, attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center. Police would often talk to the hearing person first, then communicate with the deaf person via hand-written notes.

"And (police) will often accept the hearing person's version of the events in part because they haven't gotten the full version from the deaf person trying to write an account of what happened," Macpherson said.

In other cases, police would take a deaf person into custody and call up the suspect's lawyer for the inmate to get legal advice.

"They'll say, 'Well, I'll tell the attorney what you want and I'll write you notes about what the attorney says,'" Macpherson said. "Even if the person had the skills to do the writing, it's no long a confidential attorney-client communication anymore."

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, hearing impairment is the second most common type of disability charge behind mental health issues. Of the 1,300 disability charges filed with the department from 2011 through 2015, the disability was related to a hearing impairment in 96 of those charges.

It's a growing concern, with places like hospitals and jails failing to accommodate that type of disability, said Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey.

"When we think about a disability, sometimes unfortunately in our society we think of the individuals in a wheelchair, but there are a whole range and host of disabilities which are out there," Lindsey said. "If we're really going to make space for individuals with disabilities we have to think a little bit more broadly as it relates to what might be necessary to provide those accommodations."

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