First point contact – Police

Deaf and want to contact the police?

Do you feel unsure if the police will respond in the right way? 

Don’t want to struggle with communication and endure the same types of misunderstandings?

Pen and paper is no good! You want an interpreter – too difficult to find one.

Don’t want to fight to get an interpreter?

These are the sorts of concerns expressed by deaf people when attempting to access the police (Brennan & Brown, 1997). A recent report by the British Deaf Association (Scotland Branch) on Hate Crime explained how deaf people were unlikely to report a hate crime because of communication difficulties and lack of trust.  A simple call for help can become over complicated and a barrier to accessing proper support. The uncertainty of being understood at first point of contact can weaken someone who is already a victim of crime (Rowe, 2007 & 2014). These general concerns resonated in a social media post by James Clark (see video below).

(Jame’s experience at Croydon Police station.)

In James’ case, after experiencing hate crime, he decided to report the issue to his local police. At first, James was unsure how to make the initial contact and obtain support. He tried sending a text message to 999.

Hello. This is NOT an emergency. My name is James Clark, of XXXXX. I am Deaf without speech.BSL interpreter must be present for proper interview. I want to report HATE CRIME. XXXXXXXXXX. It happened earlier this year. I tried to forget about it but it has affected my self esteem. The sooner the better please as I am feeling depressed by XXXXXXX. Thank you.

By chance this worked. He received a reply from a 999 operator. After a few SMS exchanges he received another message from a different number with the following advice.

 “Your Ref No is XXXXX of 7/12/16. We have made an appointment for police to report your crime 9th Dec @0800hrs if unable to keep this appointment please let us know. Do not reply to this text.

Although the SMS worked James had no idea where the interview would happen, if a registered interpreter had been arranged and finally how to respond and ask for more information. The SMS response James received was inadequate and potentially left James exposed to an on going hate crime. James continued as he started by taking matters into his own hands. He decided to make his own way to his local police station (in person) and arrange for a meeting with an interpreter. James is deafblind and the current system did not make it easy to access the policing support he was looking for.

At the station, the officer assisting James offered to arrange a home visit with a police officer who had “some” signing abilities to take a report. Whilst James appreciated the suggestion he requested a registered interpreter be arranged to assist with the interview. The request was flatly declined. Despite James’ attempts to explain or convince the officer to change his position the answer was still “no”. The officer did not comply with James’ reasonable request for an interpreter. This is enshrined in UK and EU laws. The officer also did not honour his own Metropolitan Police pledge:

“Always treat you fairly with dignity and respect, ensuring you have fair access to our services at a time that is reasonable and suitable for you.”

The pledge recognises the importance for the police to be seen and behave in a way that promotes contact and communication. For someone like James, this means access to a professional policing service that can assist and prevent further risk to an ongoing hate crime. These are not trivial matters, they are an important feature of democracy and citizenship (Reiner, 2010). The breakdown in the relationship between the public and police is seen as a causing factor in social disharmony and crime. In the past difficulties have existed between the police and other parts of society such as women, the black community, Asian community and working classes (Bowling and Phillips, 2003; Loader, 2006; Reiner, 2010; Rowe, 2007 & 2013). Two well-known examples came from the BBC, a documentary on the Thames Valley Police showed a disturbing interview where officers demonstrated a complete disregard for a rape victim (BBC 1, 18 January 1982) and the Secret Policeman which uncovered the racist mindset of trainee police officers at the Greater Manchester Police force.

The exposure of how certain police officers behaved towards parts of society supported the case for reform. The police have had to undergo intense scrutiny to change the way they deliver their service and be actively seen as service for all (Rowe & Garland, 2007). This includes building a force that is representative of society. The police are becoming more diverse across the following categories, race, gender and sexuality (Rowe, 2007). What about other linguistic communities in the UK, Gaelic and BSL? These are issues I am exploring for my PhD study and why I am focusing my work on first point contact. Can video technology be delivered in a way that can contribute to the Deaf communities’ public confidence and trust in the police? How far into the police process can video interpreting be used? Is an interpreter enough of a solution?

James’ post on social media did provoke fury and shock amongst his friends. It has also reaffirmed the lack of confidence and trust deaf people have towards the police. Interestingly, many of James’ social media friends signposted him on to their local PLOD officers e.g. Glen Barham (qualified interpreter, retired officer and founder of PLOD), Emma Gilbert (PLOD manager for Leicestershire), or Stephanie Rose (Police Scotland’s Disability & Diversity office). The Police Link Officer for Deaf people (PLOD) is a growing network of police officers who are voluntarily working to improve the way police forces serve their local Deaf communities. Each of these officers were recognised for their BSL skills, their efforts to garner positive relations and improve the way the police respond to the Deaf communities in the UK. Clearly these officers offer an invaluable amount of  in-house expertise on policing and higher level of awareness about the local Deaf communities.

Some of these officers have looked at the concept of using video-relay services to improve first point contact with their local force. Hampshire PLOD conducted a social media survey to determine the views of deaf people in using video relay services (VRS).

A few people responded to this public discussion and all were in favour of the concept because of the difficulties in sourcing an interpreter and the benefit of on-demand access to the police. What some people may not be aware of is the current availability of video interpreting services, here are a few examples:

  • If you require immediate assistance and live in Scotland you can contact your police via the ContactScotland service (a free video relay service for the Scottish Deaf community).
  • If you are based in the Leicestershire area you can sign-up for the free video-relay support. Users must sign-up prior to using the service.

These services aim to provide immediate access to a registered interpreter. Each service believes in the importance of enhancing and improving communication that can bring about security in an individual’s life and the sense of true citizenship in a democratic society – that as a deaf person “I can approach my local police force like any other person“. However, anyone reading this will note how little provision is made to increase access to the police. For people who can hear there are two important nationwide numbers available 999 and 101. For deaf people the situation is strikingly unequal. What happens if you’re not in Scotland, Manchester or Leicestershire? Why should I “sign up” to a service before I can use the service?  Why can’t I press one button or dial one number and make a call? Many of these questions deaf people will ask are outside the scope of my PhD but will influence how I go about my research in assessing video-mediated interpreting for police services.

In this blog I have signposted you to a number of issues around making first point contact and the importance for the police to be accessible, especially when the police are seen to be guardians of a democratic society (Reiner, 2010; Rowe, 2007, 2013). Already, work is being led by PLOD officers who are investing their energy and time to change and improve the way their local force relates to the surrounding deaf communities. I personally believe there is potential for video relay services (VRS) to facilitate first point contact, which is why I am working on this subject with Police Scotland and SignVideo. I suspect the technology will only provide the means to make the first point contact but it will be the in-house PLOD knowledge that will define the quality of that experience and how far into the police process video interpreting services can be used. Furthermore, the system that the police adopt will need to be functionally accessible and easy to use. A deaf person no matter where they are in the UK must have the confidence and faith in the video interpreting service to know it will have any benefit, this includes an officer who will respond in a way that is fair with dignity and respect.


Bowling, Ben, and Coretta Phillips. “Policing ethnic minority communities.” (2003): 528-555.

Brennan, M., & Brown, R. (1997). Equality before the law: Deaf people’s access to justice: Deaf Studies Research Unit Durham, UK.

British Deaf Association (2015). Access & Inclusion: A Report on Hate Crime in Scotland’s Deaf Community. Retrieved on 28/11/16

Loader, I. (2006). Policing, recognition, and belonging. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 605(1), 201-221

Reiner, R. (2010). The politics of the police. Oxford University Press.

Rowe, M. (2013). Introduction to policing. Sage.

Rowe, M., & Garland, J. (2007). Police diversity training: a silver-bullet tarnished?. Policing Beyond Macpherson, 43.

Rowe, M. (Ed.). (2007). Policing Beyond Macpherson. Willian

If you are, or think you might be, experiencing hate crime contact your local police force or local Deaf organisation (e.g. BDA, Royal Association for the Deaf, Deaf Action, Action Deafness). If you would like to know more about what hate crime is in BSL visit the BDA’s Hate Crime Project page or Police Scotland’s YouTube channel.