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Complaint alleges JCSO, Shrader violated ADA

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By Deborah Swearingen

A lawsuit filed in May accuses two law enforcement agencies, including the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Jeffco Sheriff Jeff Shrader, of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Among other things, the civil suit alleges two women, Ruthie Jordan and Mary Patricia Graham-Kelly, both of whom are deaf, weren’t provided certified American Sign Language interpreters when they were arrested by Jeffco deputies and booked into the Jeffco jail.

The Denver Police Department and Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman also are listed as defendants in the case.

A similar suit was settled in 2011. As a result, the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office was required to create policies and procedures regarding providing interpreters to individuals who are deaf. The department also had to pay damages to the plaintiffs in that case.

But the lawsuit says the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office “continues to discriminate against deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals … in violation of the ADA” by failing to provide accommodations to individuals who are deaf.

In the eyes of Andrew Montoya, an attorney with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition who is representing the plaintiffs in the current case, it’s beneficial to have two women who interacted with the sheriff’s office separately joining together to take action. To Montoya, it shows the extent of the problem.

“(It’s) not just an officer who forgot the policy,” Montoya said. “These guys simply aren’t doing the right thing, period.

“We really just want law enforcement agencies in the state to get this right,” Montoya later added, saying all people should be treated the same regardless of whether they’ve committed a crime or have a disability.

Per Jefferson County’s website, the county acts in accordance with the requirements of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, both of which prohibit discrimination against qualified individuals on the basis of disability in its services, programs or activities. Additionally, Jeffco will make modifications for those with disabilities and will provide auxiliary aids or service for those who need it for effective communication.

According to the ADA, if an agency provides a certain level of communication for those who hear, it must also provide the same level of communication for those who are deaf.

Despite this, Shrader believes his deputies followed protocol. While he hasn’t seen the lawsuit and said the department has merely been served a notice of intent, Shrader did say his department worked with the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities in the past to develop a “very sound policy.”

“In this particular case, from what we’ve been able to gather, we’ve largely complied with those,” Shrader said. “ … I can’t really comment on the merits of the lawsuit because we haven’t seen it.”

Ultimately, though, no two situations are exactly alike, and many require deputies to make decisions in the heat of the moment, Shrader added.

“Deputy sheriffs and the like have to make decisions based on the information that’s in front of them,” he said, noting they’re always encouraged to adhere to the policy whenever possible.

Although many assume American Sign Language is the same as English, Amy Robertson with Denver-based Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center said that idea is simply untrue.

“ASL is its own language,” she said. “It’s as different from English as Russian or Chinese.”

In the day of smartphones, tablets and technology galore, Robertson would like to see the utilization of translation services become common practice for law enforcement agencies when dealing with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It’s natural to do this for those who speak Spanish, French, Russian or Chinese but not for those who speak American Sign Language, she said.

With lawsuits such as this one, the two sides frequently reach a settlement.

“It doesn’t necessarily translate into an effective solution for the next person who they encounter,” Robertson said.

“I would like to see it much more a part of training and much more a natural part of policy (rather) than trying to solve the problem one lawsuit at time,” she said.

According to Montoya, the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office has 20 to 30 days to file an answer to the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition complaint. In the meantime, he is working on settlement proposals to try and resolve the issue outside of court.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.