Tone Deaf

Deaf Austinites say police can't seem to listen to reason

Esther Valdez (l), who is deaf, was charged with resisting arrest because she didn't hear a police officer's order; her attorney, Alexandra Gauthier (center), won a dismissal of the charge. Attorney Amber D. Farrelly Elliott (r) says APD has a history of missteps with deaf residents.
Esther Valdez (l), who is deaf, was charged with resisting arrest because she didn't hear a police officer's order; her attorney, Alexandra Gauthier (center), won a dismissal of the charge. Attorney Amber D. Farrelly Elliott (r) says APD has a history of missteps with deaf residents. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Esther Valdez is deaf.

That explains some, but not all, of what happened to her on June 16, 2009. In the simplest terms, the 24-year-old found herself in trouble with the Austin Police Department – booked into jail for resisting arrest, a charge punishable by up to a year in jail – because she could not hear Officer Steven Willis yelling at her to stop as she walked along a North Austin sidewalk with her girlfriend, Ceci Bermudez.

It was just before 6pm on a hot June evening when trouble found Valdez, who has been deaf since birth; she can detect some sounds with the help of a hearing aid, but its battery was not working on June 16. Valdez and Bermudez, who is hearing, were walking to the grocery store from their apartment. Rush hour traffic buzzed by in both directions along Metric Boulevard as they walked south along the sidewalk, but the two women barely noticed because they were engaged in an intense, personal conversation carried on in sign language.

Their intensity apparently caught Wil­lis' attention as he rolled up on the women in his patrol car. According to his report of the incident, he first saw the pair roughly a half-hour earlier, as he drove to get gas. "I observed that the two were walking but it seemed that they were having a heated discussion as I observed them emoting with their hands while speaking to one another," he wrote. As he drove back in the opposite direction along that same route, Willis again saw the two women. But now, he wrote in his report, the two were actually fighting: "This time I observed that they were physically struggling with one another," he wrote. "I saw them both pulling and grabbing at each other's arms. I saw that they had gone from talking to a physical disturbance."

According to Willis, the women spotted him when he made a U-turn in his car to come up behind them. They immediately stopped fighting and just "stood there facing each other," he wrote. When he got out of his car and headed toward them, they "began walking away from me at a fast pace." He yelled for them to stop, but they didn't; Willis had to run, he wrote, to catch up with them and "had to grab Valdez by her arm in order to get them to stop." Although he notes that Bermudez "immediately" told him that Valdez is "hearing impaired," that apparently did not affect how he proceeded. "I saw that Valdez had a hearing aid," he wrote, "and could in fact carry on a conversation with me."

Willis also decided that what he'd seen of their conversation had nothing to do with Val­dez's inability to hear. "Bermudez and Valdez were not using sign when I saw them arguing and were not using sign to communicate with me," he wrote. How he arrived at that conclusion isn't clear.

Willis' report lays out the basics of the rest of the encounter, as he perceived it. Bermudez was hearing, he noted, so there was no reason that she didn't stop walking when told; Valdez supposedly told him not to touch her and that the pair didn't have to stop if they didn't want to. Willis asked the couple what was happening, and they told him they were just talking and walking. He told them he saw them "grabbing" each other, which Bermudez denied. While he was talking with Bermudez, Valdez began texting her mother on her cell phone; Willis took the phone, put it down, and continued talking to Bermudez. Valdez picked up her phone and started walking away; Willis yelled at her to stop, but she kept walking. He told her to put her hands behind her back so he could cuff her; she didn't comply and tried to pull away from him. He wrestled Valdez to the sidewalk. According to Willis, Bermudez began "pulling at my hands and arms" to get him off Valdez. Eventually a second officer, Teressa Graves, arrived on the scene, and the officers arrested both Valdez and Bermudez and sequestered them in separate police cars, eventually taking both to the Downtown jail.

On its face, the encounter might appear mundane, even routine: Cop stops to check welfare of couple; couple is belligerent; cop tries to subdue them, and they fight; couple goes to jail.

Ineffective Communication

The main difficulty with calling this encounter "routine," however, is that Valdez had no idea what was happening. She didn't understand why Willis pursued her and Bermudez in the first place, she didn't understand why she wasn't free to text her mother or to walk away from him while he was talking with Ber­mudez, and she didn't understand why Willis was grabbing at her and trying to cuff her.

And not once during what became a three-hour encounter with APD did any one of the officers at the scene – in all there were three, including a supervisor (an EMS crew was also called to check out Valdez, who was scraped and limping after being forced to the ground by Willis) – attempt to communicate with Valdez in any meaningful way. Instead, as the police video reflects, they merely raised their voices and repeated the same commands multiple times – as if speaking louder would somehow cure Valdez's deafness. It seems that because Valdez, who attended mainstream public schools, has learned to "vocalize" fairly well, the officers completely disregarded her disability. In fact, when Willis cuffed Valdez, he did so with her hands behind her back, which effectively ended any opportunity for her to communicate with him by signing or writing notes.

Unfortunately, Valdez's experience is not unique among Austin's sizable deaf population – nor is it particularly unique among the nation's estimated 1 million deaf people. (According to Gallaudet University, the nation's premier educational institution for the deaf, there are also roughly 8 million Americans who are hard of hearing.) Advocates in Austin and elsewhere describe an ongoing problem of communication between deaf people and the police, even though the Americans With Dis­abil­ities Act makes it clear that police have a duty to provide effective communication to people with disabilities in the populations they serve.

"The general standard in dealing with deaf/[hard of hearing] individuals for APD, as well as other [police departments], is that they must provide effective communication pursuant to Title II of the [ADA]," Faye Kuo, an attorney who has handled numerous ADA-related lawsuits and who is also deaf, told the Chronicle. "Effective communication is not always easy to define in general, since what might be effective for one person may not be effective for another. So effectiveness is determined on a case-by-case basis."

Austin has become a major city for deaf residents, in no small part because of the reputation of the Texas School for the Deaf and the social service and employment opportunities connected to the world-class educational facility on South Congress Avenue. Stacy Landry, program manager for the Travis County Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, estimates that Austin is home to roughly 50,000-60,000 deaf people. Never­the­less, problems with police remain commonplace and even expected by deaf people. "That's nothing new to the deaf community," says Paul Rutowski, president of the Texas Association of the Deaf. "Police think every deaf person has some level of speech skills. That's not true."

Yet the APD has a written policy that outlines specifically what officers are supposed to do during encounters with deaf residents. The problem, say many folks active in the deaf community, is that no one seems to be following that policy – and, by extension, the requirements of the ADA. Landry says she's worked with APD to try to ensure that officers have the training necessary to deal well with deaf residents, so she knows APD has a policy – though she's never known the specifics, she says. "I don't care what the policy is," she says, "because it's pretty clear that nobody there knows what the policy is."

And if the police aren't following their own policy, it follows that it is only a question of when another encounter between police and a deaf resident will take a negative turn, says attorney Alexandra Gauthier, who was appointed to handle Valdez's case. It took more than a year for the charge against her to be dismissed – that finally happened in late August, "in the interest of justice," according to the official dismissal form. In the aftermath, however, Valdez has acquired a fear of police; she says the June 2009 incident with Willis, Graves, and their supervisor, Sgt. Alfred Trejo, was "the first time I'd ever talked to a cop."

Policy and Discretion

The APD policy covering what officers are required to do when involved in situations with residents who are deaf or hard-of-hearing – in effect since early 2000 – is fairly straightforward. In most traffic situations, for example, the policy says that interpreters are rarely necessary. If a hearing person would get a citation without needing to be questioned, then "a person with a hearing impairment in the same situation does not need to be provided an interpreter," reads the policy, unless, of course, the officer is "unable to convey the nature of the infraction." In that case, the officer can decide whether to call an interpreter or "issue a warning rather than a citation."

As an interaction between police and deaf citizens becomes more complex, it's increasingly likely that an interpreter is required. If an arrest is imminent, police should call for an interpreter – available 24 hours a day, within 30 minutes, under a contract the department holds with the nonprofit company Commun­i­ca­tion Service for the Deaf – "if the officer is unable to convey the nature of the criminal charges." If police need to interview a person to determine if there is probable cause that a law has been violated, the policy continues, "an interpreter must be provided if written communication is ineffective." If an officer cannot "wait until an interpreter arrives," they're told that for minor offenses they should "postpone the interview and arrest until able to return to the scene with an interpreter." For serious offenses, the policy instructs officers to "contact a supervisor," who will decide whether the officer should wait for an interpreter. Finally, according to the policy, an interpreter "must be provided" before any police interrogation.

Although the policy has been in place for a decade, local advocates say there are plenty of examples where it was simply ignored. The most notorious is the Catfish Parlour incident, which took place June 30, 2000 – two months after the policy took effect. It involved a deaf-blind man, Richard Bell, and his deaf wife, Joan. After a dispute with the manager over the lack of a braille menu, the manager knocked Richard down and then called police. When APD Officer Daniel Arizpe arrived, he did not provide an interpreter even after Joan repeatedly asked for one; instead, Arizpe used only his voice to communicate that he intended to arrest Rich­ard. Richard didn't know what was happening – or even that Arizpe was a cop – and when Arizpe tried to arrest him, he bit the officer's arm.

No charges were ever filed against the Bells, and, two years later, the city settled a federal lawsuit brought under the ADA on their behalf by the Texas Civil Rights Project. The city agreed to ensure that every APD officer receives at least four hours of training on dealing with individuals with disabilities, including the deaf and blind. (By contrast, the state's police-licensing agency, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, does not require any specific training that covers the deaf or hard of hearing.)

According to Officer Jane Pacifico, who handles APD's cadet training related to the hearing impaired, new officers are given eight hours of training on dealing with deaf and hard-of-hearing residents (double what was called for under the Bell settlement), taught by employees of the Travis County Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Moreover, says Lt. Darryl Jamail, training supervisor, cadets are taught about all APD policies, including that which covers the provision of interpreter services. "All of the officers in the department are bound by policy," he says.

No policy can cover every possible situation that might arise, so the policy covering interpreters for the hearing impaired is written to provide flexibility, outlining basic requirements and providing a guide to when and how officers may use discretion. In certain kinds of incidents, notes Pacifico, there might be no immediate need to call for an interpreter. Take, for example, a shoplifting case, she says, where there are witnesses and the person is caught with the merchandise. In that situation, it is likely that the suspect understands why he or she is being arrested, and it might be most practical to arrest the person and take him Downtown, where he'll be provided with an interpreter after booking.

"Looking through the policy," says Jamail, "it is clear that a lot is left up to the officer's discretion."

Language and Culture

On paper the policy looks reasonable – but serious communication problems persist for deaf residents dealing with police. Amber D. Farrelly Elliott, an Austin defense attorney, has testified in court as an expert on American Sign Language and deaf culture. She took her first class in ASL at 9 years old and has been studying the language for 25 years. "I fell in love with it ... and with deaf people and deaf culture," she says. After graduating from law school last year, Elliott quickly made it onto the defense appointment list for Travis County's misdemeanor courts, in large part because of her ability to communicate effectively with deaf clients. In just more than a year, she's been appointed or hired to represent roughly 50 deaf clients. And of those, she says, all but a very few have eventually had the charges against them dismissed by county prosecutors, because the majority of the charges filed by police have been "based on misunderstanding or miscommunications," she says, "one of those two issues. And it's either going to go back to language or to culture. Those are the main issues when dealing with deaf clients."

Three still shots taken from Austin Police Officer Steven Willis' patrol-car camera show the officer approaching Esther Valdez and Ceci Bermudez as they walk along the sidewalk (top) on Metric Boulevard, then talking with Bermudez (middle) before wrestling Valdez to the ground (bottom).
Three still shots taken from Austin Police Officer Steven Willis' patrol-car camera show the officer approaching Esther Valdez and Ceci Bermudez as they walk along the sidewalk (top) on Metric Boulevard, then talking with Bermudez (middle) before wrestling Valdez to the ground (bottom).

In Valdez's case, a complete lack of both communication and understanding led to her arrest, says Elliott, who was brought into the case by Valdez's appointed attorney, Gauthier. Gauthier says that when she first met Valdez, she was still frightened and confused by what had happened. "It was very clear that Esther didn't understand what was going on or why she was in trouble, but she was very, very afraid," Gauthier recently recalled. "With the arrest, with everything – every time she came to court she thought she was going to be arrested for something. It even took me a while to explain that I was her attorney." With Elliott assisting, the communication was easier – and it wasn't long before both lawyers better understood why Valdez seemed so traumatized.

"The officer created the arrest situation by his behavior," Gauthier said bluntly. Indeed, although the written reports filed by Willis and by his supervisor, Trejo, appear fairly straightforward, they do not comport with the incident as captured on Willis' and Graves' in-car video cameras, the lawyers say. "When I watched the tape, I was appalled – I literally cried the first time I watched it," says Elliott. (Selections from the in-car videos are posted at the end of this story.)

Incomprehension, Escalation

The video of Valdez's arrest is indeed difficult to watch. On the tape Willis runs toward Valdez and Bermudez, who are walking along the sidewalk, while yelling at the couple to stop. "I saw you putting hands on each other," he tells them. "We did nothing!" Bermudez protests.

Things go rapidly downhill. Bermudez tells Willis that Valdez is deaf, but he is unimpressed. "She can comprehend what I am trying to tell her," but is willfully ignoring him, he tells Bermudez. With Willis' attention on Bermudez, Valdez starts to walk away; Willis yells at Valdez's back for her to stop. "Hey! Hey!" he says and turns to grab her. "Put your hands behind your back!" he yells. He pushes her to the ground; she begins crying. "I'm deaf! I'm deaf!" she says. "Put your hands behind your back, now!" he responds, as she struggles to get free from underneath him. Although Willis later tells Trejo that Bermudez jumped on him and tried to pull him off Valdez, that is not how it appears on tape, although Bermudez does move in close to Willis as she pleads with him to get off Valdez. "Leave her alone!" Bermudez says.

When Graves arrives on the scene some six minutes into the encounter, Valdez, who is weeping, tries to tell her what happened. "He attacked me!" she yells several times. By this time Valdez is inconsolable; crying and wailing. But neither officer takes any visible steps to de-escalate the situation or to try to communicate with Valdez about what is happening. "Stand up! Stand up!" Willis yells at her. A minute later, with Valdez on her feet, still weeping and now limping, the officers take her to the back of Willis' patrol car – she wails as Willis yells at her to "get in the car!"

Valdez is in the car but still crying when Trejo arrives a minute later; instead of trying to facilitate communication, however, Trejo escalates the encounter by pulling out a pepper-spray canister and holding it ready to spray in Valdez's face. "Listen up!" he yells at her. "Don't move; don't do anything, or you're going to get some of this!" Not surprisingly, Valdez takes the action as a threat and begins crying even louder.

While Valdez is in the back of the car, still weeping, Willis gives Trejo and Graves his version of what happened. "I know [that she's deaf], but she understands a lot; she can hear you," he says. "She understands enough." Valdez, naturally, disputes this. "I did not understand what was going on or what the police were saying," she told me through an interpreter.

A National Problem

To Gauthier and Elliott, the recorded episode is disturbing at best. "Esther's ability to communicate with anybody did not exist; no one took the time to make sure Esther could communicate with anybody," Gauthier says. "And calming her down by opening up the back of the police cruiser and sticking a pepper-spray canister in her face? Again, not an effective way to communicate with her. The lack of understanding of the need to communicate with her through an interpreter is unbelievable," she continued. "There was no attempt for the three hours that they were with her to communicate with her." APD officials declined to comment on the specifics of Valdez's case. Contacted last week, Chief Art Acevedo said that he would review the Valdez arrest report and video and take "corrective action" if necessary.

Unfortunately, says Elliott, Valdez's experience is far from unique – the problem of communication between police and deaf people is a national issue that often bursts into headlines. In 2006, a nationally known deaf educator and historian, Saint Paul College instructor Doug Bahl, was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in St. Paul, Minn.; he told the officer that he was deaf and asked to communicate in writing. The cop, "for whatever reason ... decided that he would not use a pen and paper to communicate, and it just sort of escalated," says Rick Macpherson, Bahl's attorney. The officer reached into the car and sprayed Bahl with pepper spray then pulled him out of the car and "beats and kicks him," Macpherson said. The officer arrested Bahl, who now could neither hear nor see; Bahl was eventually transported to the hospital. The officer's only explanation for his actions, Macpherson said, was that he'd never been trained on how to communicate with the deaf. Word of what happened to Bahl "went around the country ... very quickly," Macpherson said.

Earlier this year, video of a violent encounter between two deaf brothers and several security guards outside a store in Los Angeles amassed more than 300,000 views on YouTube in the first 24 hours after it was posted, says Texas Association of the Deaf President Rutow­ski. That video "was really awful," he says. On the video, security guards attack one brother whom they suspect of shoplifting, holding him on the ground while his brother frantically tries to explain that they have a receipt for their purchases. Dozens of people are milling around the outside of the store watching and recording the episode, but no one intervenes. "It was a big deal on the national news," says Rutowski, but "that's nothing new to the deaf community."

Nothing Has Changed

Of all the deaf clients Elliott has represented, she can't recall a single case in which police have actually requested a sign-language interpreter to come to the scene. "I think that's pretty telling," she says. "It says a couple of things to me: that the officers who are called to whatever scene it is are unaware of their own policy to get an interpreter, or that they don't care what the situation is. Perhaps there's the idea that we'll just arrest them now and let the court figure it out – I hate to say that." But, she adds, the "beautiful thing about Austin and our very large deaf community is that we have the infrastructure set up, in place already, for the officers to get an interpreter to the scene, day or night, 24 hours a day." Travis County courts do not keep statistics on how many deaf defendants enter the criminal justice system, but Landry says that in 2009, the county provided 11,000 hours of interpretation services for all purposes – including for the courts and jail.

A comparable number is not available for the city, which contracts such services on a departmental basis. But for a sense of scale, according to APD, the department has contacted their contractor, Communication Service for the Deaf, to request an interpreter just 53 times this year. Many of those calls were for interrogations, says department spokesman Cpl. Scott Perry. (Under Texas law, in order to be admissible in court, all statements from deaf suspects made during a custodial interrogation must be facilitated by a certified interpreter.) However, he said, the number of calls for interpreters made to CSD doesn't reflect the number of times that police communicate with deaf residents. The APD has three officers who know sign language – and who are paid a bilingual stipend for their skills – and patrol officers often will opt to call one of those officers to a scene instead of calling for a licensed CSD interpreter.

But calling for an officer – none of whom are actually certified or licensed interpreters – is not sufficient to ensure effective communication, says Elliott, particularly when legal concepts must be explained, when a crime is being investigated, or when an arrest is possible. Indeed, says Debra Patkin, a staff attorney with the National Association of the Deaf, the failure to call a real interpreter to help on-scene is a problem nationwide. "People all over the country contact us and are frustrated because many [police] refuse to get interpreters," Patkin said through an interpreter. "Communication is vital; it is important to have a smooth process, especially if there is the possibility of an arrest. It is better to have an interpreter there, and could also save everyone some time. It is an all-around benefit."

Elliott has in fact had clients who have tried to communicate with APD officers whom the department has "certified" as bilingual – as a rule, she says, those interactions have not been helpful. In a recent case, a client, "Dan" (he asked that we not use his real name), was pulled over on suspicion of drunken driving. He repeatedly wrote in notes to the officer that he "requires an interpreter." Instead, the officer called to the scene a fellow officer who he said knew sign language. In a recent interview through an interpreter, Dan said he could not understand anything the officer was saying – he didn't seem to know any ASL and even had a hard time with basic finger spelling. Eventually, Dan went back to writing notes with the officer who had pulled him over. "We just wrote back and forth after we realized that bad-finger-spelling cop wasn't doing very well," he said. And although Dan said he continued to request an interpreter, none was provided. "The last time I wrote in big letters: 'PLEASE, I WANT AN INTERPRETER,'" he said. But the cop "persisted" in questioning him without one, and "I gave up writing, because he's not giving me an interpreter." Dan was eventually taken to jail and charged with drunken driving. Two months later, the charge was officially dismissed "in the interest of justice."

More disturbing was the response of officers involved in another DWI case Elliott is handling. In video from that stop, after the police have wrestled the deaf man to the ground, dislodging his hearing aid, two officers can be heard off-camera discussing the man's request for a sign-language interpreter: "He's under the impression that he has the right to an interpreter," the first officer says, according to a transcript provided by Elliott.

"When did that law come out?" the second officer asks.

"It didn't," the first replies.

Further complicating matters is that written communication isn't always effective or a good substitute for qualified interpretation, say deaf advocates. Writing notes is not a communication panacea, in part because many deaf people, and in particular those who are prelingually deaf, are not fluent in English. A common misconception is that being deaf doesn't preclude knowledge of English – but, quite often, that is exactly what it means, says Wess Smith, sign language and assessment coordinator for the Texas School for the Deaf. Smith is a certified court interpreter (the highest level of certification for ASL speakers) and performs communication assessments of many state, county, and municipal agencies – including APD. Smith, who is hearing, has been signing for more than 20 years; if he lost his hearing today, he says, he could write and read effectively because he's had a lifetime of English language acquisition and listening. But for individuals born deaf, English is quite difficult to learn.

"When a child's hearing loss is prelingual (born deaf or hard-of-hearing, or the onset of hearing loss occurs before two to five years of age), his deafness has a profound and lifelong effect on his ability to acquire and understand English or any other oral language," psychologist McCay Vernon and University of Wisconsin law professor Michele LaVigne wrote in the Wisconsin Law Review. "Deaf children raised in ... English-speaking households have, by age five, an average English language vocabulary of under 500 words, and little understanding of English syntax. These children enter school with a severely limited sense of English, and they never catch up," the authors continue. By contrast, the average hearing child entering kindergarten has a vocabulary of roughly 14,000 words. The disparity may be shocking, but it is nonetheless logical. "Written English, despite the fact that we can see it, is in reality nothing more than a symbolization of the sounds of the spoken language," the authors write. "The process of reading requires that those symbols be decoded."

Elliott and fellow defense attorney Leigh Gonnet – who has been trying for two years to have a case similar to Dan's dismissed – say that another problem with note-writing is that police routinely fail to turn over those notes as evidence. That's troubling, says Elliott, because the notes can show how much the clients actually understood about what was happening during their encounters with police. Notes should be turned over as evidence, the lawyers say. "But I never, never see that writing," Elliott says. "That's a huge problem, because that's going to be your proof [of whether] that person understood or not: What are you telling my client? What are they understanding?" APD training Officer Pacifico says department policy does not require that notes be submitted into evidence. Instead, that is left to the officer to decide, "depending on the situation and the type of call you have and if an officer remembers to do that," she said. "It is not required of them."

Smith says that he's become increasingly frustrated by the communication problems that plague the relationship between deaf Austinites and police. In one particular incident, he says, police were called to the Texas School for the Deaf to handle a situation between an adult student and his mother. TSD requires a certified interpreter to handle all communications between students and school security guards or outside agency police, so Smith was paged to handle the interpretation. When he met the student and the APD officer, he said the officer dismissed him, saying that he would handle the communication because he'd been "certified" in ASL by Wess Smith. Apparently the man did not recognize Smith, who'd conducted his language assessment for APD. "And he dismisses me. ... I said, 'Okay, first of all, let me introduce myself: I'm Wess Smith.'" He said the officer still tried to dismiss his services. "He should've been thrilled to have it. But it was more about him than about the situation," he said. "Where does that mentality come from? That you're more important than the situation?"

Since that episode, Smith says, he's been wary of performing assessments for APD officers. He tries to make clear in each assessment how strong the officer's skills are and what their level of proficiency is. In an assessment example he provided to the Chronicle (with the officer's identity redacted), Smith noted that the officer's skill level was that of "survival": The officer can communicate basic concepts at a "slow-to-moderate rate" and "with many sign vocabulary errors." Among the signing errors the officer in question made, the assessment notes, were signing "jail" instead of "wait," and "fuck you" instead of "OK." Whether APD decides that an officer is proficient enough to receive bilingual pay is strictly up to the city, says Smith; it is not up to Smith or TSD. "Every report gets this disclaimer: This is a communication assessment. This is not an interpreting assessment."

There's a difference between communication and interpretation. Knowing some ASL, which is a foreign language with its own unique structure, or how to competently finger-spell English words are important skills. But "there is a difference between having the skills to communicate and having the skills to interpret for a legal setting," says Smith. "If you get into a little fender-bender and you have an officer who can sign, how great it is that you have a police officer who can communicate!" he says. "But there is a time when they have to stop" – when officers need to realize that they've reached the limit of their communication abilities and need to call in a professional for help. "And I don't think they know when to stop."

According to Smith and Landry, all of these issues have been brought directly to the attention of APD Chief Art Aceve­do, generally after there's been some sort of an incident – like the situation with Smith at TSD. Still, nothing has changed. "I don't know, [Acevedo] walked away with all these plans. He said, 'I'm going to do this and that,'" recalls Landry. But "it doesn't look like anything has happened out of it."

Acevedo said that he has indeed met with deaf advocates and has toured the TSD facility but did not comment on the substance of those meetings. He says that he's aware of the unique needs of Austin's large deaf community but that he can only take action to correct problems within the department if the community brings them to his attention each and every time they happen. "If we don't get the constant feedback," he says, problems can't be addressed. "The eyes and ears of the Police Department are the community we serve." He agreed that yelling at a deaf person (as happened in Valdez's case) is not an effective communication strategy. "That's not going to accomplish anything," he said. "I can't fix [the problems] if people don't come forward – and we need people to come forward. That is the key," he said. "They need to trust the system and put the system on notice so that we can fix it."

Valdez would really like to see things change. Until last June she'd never been in trouble before, never even had to speak to a cop before. Now, she's afraid of police, she says. That is unfortunate, say Elliott and Gauthier, who would like to see police take more seriously their legal duty to provide effective and equal communication for persons with disabilities such as deafness. "I think the best way to handle problems that have come up with the police is already there: Have everyone comply with the ADA. It's already there. The APD should be aware that they already have a policy in place," says Gauthier. "We hope that what happened with Esther won't happen again and that her story will help them be more aware in the future."

In-Car Video Selections:

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