January 17, 2019
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American Sign Language and police departments

By: Irene Hilsendager
December 14, 2018

The American Sign Language is a natural language that serves as the predominant sign language of deaf communities in the United States.

As someone that just recently learned of police officers going to school to learn sign language, curiosity took over to find out if the local police and sheriff departments even had such a program.

The following is an excerpt from the Cotati Police Chief, Michael Parrish:

The Cotati Police dispatch center does have a TTY line that the hearing impaired can use to communicate emergencies. The user has a typing device on their end and can text back and forth with the dispatcher to relay whatever is going on.

The Cotati Police Department does not have an officer that signs. There is one, Officer Ryan Reinke, who can sign the alphabet. The officers can also use their smart phones in the field to text or allow someone else to type text into the phone. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department does have a detective that signs. Our department can call an allied law enforcement agency if need be to sign language assistance.

As of now Cotati has no plans to send an officer to sign language school as it is a tool that is a specialty and would be used minimally. This would be comparable to a certified polygraph examiner; larger departments sometimes have their own but the Cotati Police Department does not. The department contracts polygraph out to other sources.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department basically echoed the Cotati chief. Speaking to one sheriff, he did say that if an officer wanted to go to a sign language school, there are funds available. The officer also noted that in his 29 years of service of law enforcement, he has never run into the need for a sign language interpreter. There may have been an occasion but it is rare. Also a funny side bar, the sheriff’s department was trolled by someone on Facebook the other day acting like he was deaf but the deputies were pretty sure he was a cop hater looking for a fight based on his poor attitude.

ASL originated in the early 19th century in the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn., from a situation of language contact. Since then, ASL use has propagated widely via schools for the deaf and Deaf community organizations. Despite its wide use, no accurate count of ASL users has been taken, though reliable estimates for American ASL users range from 250,000 to 500,000 persons, including a number of children of deaf adults. ASL users face stigma due to beliefs in the superiority of oral language to sign language, compounded by the fact that ASL is often glossed over in English due to the lack of a standard writing system.

As of press time, the Rohnert Park Police Department has not answered any of the Voice’s calls.