Officials in a South Jersey community have agreed to train officers and institute new policies for dealing with deaf people following a lawsuit filed by a deaf woman who said she was discriminated against during her 2016 arrest.
Deborah Mendola filed the federal suit against Monroe Township, in Gloucester County, after police responded to a parking dispute at an apartment complex. Mendola and her husband, who are both hearing impaired, were arguing with a neighbor when someone called 911 to report “that a deaf couple was yelling at an obese woman outside of the caller’s apartment,” according to the suit.
Officers tried to speak with the Mendolas at their apartment, and the couple’s son soon arrived and began arguing with the other woman involved in the parking issue. Then he argued with the officers.
Deborah Mendola saw that confrontation and “attempted to communicate with the police by getting in front of the officers so that they could see her, using sign language, and attempting to use her voice,” the suit states.
Officers took this as a sign that she was trying to interfere with the arrest of her son and they arrested her for what they described as “loudly grunting … and flailing her arms wildly in public,” according to the suit.
The officers “used force to bring Ms. Mendola to the ground” and, while standing behind her, “shouted at her to put her arms behind her back, even though the police officers knew Ms. Mendola was deaf.”
She was charged with assaulting a police officer, obstruction, resisting arrest and improper behavior, according to the suit. Her son and two daughters were also arrested.
Mendola suffered an asthma attack during the incident and couldn’t explain to the officers that she was having trouble breathing, the suit noted.
Under terms of the agreement, which was approved by a federal judge on Friday, the township will pay Mendola $75,000 and make changes within the police department to address concerns raised in the lawsuit.
The department will provide annual training to officers on the obligation to provide sign language interpreters to deaf individuals and on how to obtain sign language services in a timely manner.
The township has 90 days to contract with a sign language interpreting agency which can provide interpreters within two hours of a request. The township may also, in some circumstances, use assistive technology, according to the settlement. This could include remote video interpreting.
Police never sought out a qualified interpreter during the incident and denied requests for one after the arrests, the suit stated. Officers allegedly relied on one of the arrested daughters to handle these duties, though she was not a qualified interpreter. In return for the remedies described in the agreement and the payment, Mendola agreed to drop her suit. Her attorney, Andrew Rozynski, expressed satisfaction with the settlement.
“We are pleased with the result obtained,” he said. “This case should serve as a reminder of the importance of full communication access in police encounters. Law enforcement agencies across the country should take affirmative steps ensure that they adopt robust policies, comprehensive training and follow clear practices to provide sign language interpreters in a timely manner to deaf individuals to protect them from discrimination.”