Heard Here First: Responsible Adults Needed

While last week’s entry concerned officers who could not hear, this week’s entry is about a department that can neither see nor hear, when dealing with a class of persons who cannot hear, but who most definitely see the NYPD at its worst.

When Opal Gordon settled her lawsuit against the NYPD for $100,000 last week, after being held in custody for 21 hours while officers contemplated how to communicate with a deaf woman, it should have come as no surprise that the department said it soon would launch a video program to reach sign language interpreters. What was surprising was that the NYPD announced this program: after settling a lawsuit last year with Tanya Ingram for $80,000, for wrongly arresting her and denying her a sign language interpreter; after settling a lawsuit in 2015 with Diana Williams for $750,000, for wrongly arresting her and denying her a sign language interpreter; and after the department signed a consent decree in 2009 with the Department of Justice, requiring it to provide sign language interpreter services 24 hours a day “when necessary to provide effective communication to individuals with hearing impairments.”

So, nearly $1 million dollars later, the department is recognizing that it has a problem communicating with deaf people. But then, its real problem is that it suffers from an outmoded governance structure, one in which yesterday’s policy pronouncements (or consent decrees) are not even today’s memories, and in which there is no mechanism to ensure that guidelines are followed, apart from an officer’s good will. In a responsible world, detailed plans for effectuating a policy would be published in a transparent manner, followed by oversight to measure effectiveness relative to the policy’s goals, remedial measures proposed to cure unintended results, and accountability for failures to reach the intended goal. But this isn’t a responsible world, it’s the NYPD in the 21st Century and hey, isn’t that what lawsuits are for anyway?

It’s easy to forgot now, ten-plus years later, that the stop-and-frisk lawsuit came about because of the shock the city felt, after the Sean Bell shooting, in finding that stop-and-frisks had increased 500% since the beginning of the Bloomberg administration. It’s also easy to forget that the NYPD, for the previous four years, had neglected to file the required quarterly updates as to stop-and-frisk activities, such requirement being the City Council’s legislative answer to the shooting of Amadou Diallo and a lawsuit filed in response to the tactics of the Street Crimes Unit.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the Council, normally complacent at best, but complaisant in dealing with the NYPD, would have done anything with the data showing the alarming increase in stop-and-frisks. But submitting the reports, as part of a transparent process, perhaps would have worked to ensure accountability or at the very least, embarrassment. And shame sometimes can be a powerful motivator, especially since lawsuits seem to have no effect.