Language & Communication28th February 2021

Police Celebrate St David's Day With a BSL Performance of Welsh Anthem

Dyfed Powys Police making history and bridging the gap with the Deaf Community

by Simon Deacy O.B.E.

With the biggest geographical area of all 43 police forces in England and Wales, improving the response to a single operational issue that affects every part of Dyfed Powys is far more difficult than any other force, and yet when it comes to putting in place direct communication with the Deaf community through British Sign Language (BSL), Dyfed Powys Police are leading the way.

As a young police officer, I worked on the murder of a Deaf girl early in my service, and I was acutely aware of the communication vacuum that existed between the police and the Deaf community. However, what I was blissfully unaware of back then, was the level of mistrust in the police that the communication barrier generated. Nearly forty years on, having retired as a senior police officer and now working within a Deaf environment, it is upsetting to see how little progress on communication and trust has been made by police forces throughout England and Wales – until now, in the Dyfed Powys policing area.

Being able to communicate effectively is a must for the police service, and whilst the introduction of Police Liaison Officer’s for the Deaf (PLOD) in some English police forces is a small step forward in engagement of a few people within the Deaf community, being able to meet that communication need operationally for all Deaf people is something entirely different. That is what Dyfed Powys Police are trying to achieve.

Through the leadership of then Acting Chief Constable Pam Kelly, Dyfed Powys Police set out on a programme to enhance the knowledge and understanding of deaf people by their Neighbourhood Policing teams. Through engagement of an expert and long-standing Deaf trainer in Sarah Lawrence from Deaf Friendly Business Solutions, an ambition to bridge the gap and reach out to the Deaf community began. Running training at Police Headquarters and then within some Neighbourhood Policing teams, hearts and minds were tuned in to what it is to be Deaf, Deafened or Hard of Hearing and how that affects access to, and trust in, policing.

Many of the attendees had never given a thought to how effectively Deaf people can make an emergency 999 call, how that call is then managed, or how domestic abuse might be reported or safe sanctuary sought. (Incidentally, why is it still not possible in this day and age to make a 999 video call?)

The next step by Dyfed Powys Police is the boldest and best step by any of the other 42 police forces and it’s rationale is explained by Teleri Williams, Equality, Diversity and Welsh Language Manager for Dyfed-Powys Police, who commented, “We are delighted to be working with Deaf Friendly Business Solutions to provide British Sign Language training to our officers. We are committed to ensuring that we are able to communicate and engage effectively with everyone in our communities, in the way that best suits them, and this training plays a vital part in this.”

Seeking volunteers from their neighbourhood policing areas, Dyfed Powys Police have set out with an ambition for each area to have a member of the operational policing team who can communicate with Deaf residents in their first language, BSL, the Welsh Regional dialect of BSL to be precise. As important as an all-day BSL session is to learn first contact pleasantries and reassurance, the commitment in Dyfed Powys Police goes far further than that and its operational benefit has already been realised through various interactions between those on the course and Deaf people within the community, as described by Joshua Chapman from the Llanelli Rural Policing Team,

“Once I heard that Dyfed Powys Police were placing us on the Level 1 British Sign language course I was delighted. Prior to the course, I had never thought about learning BSL but having completed my Level 1 and learning from Sarah and Simon, I’m so happy that I have. From a personal perspective, I have so much more knowledge and awareness of the Deaf community. From an operational perspective, I feel it’s so important that the Deaf community have the same opportunities as the rest of the community and feel that the force has taken a huge step forward by giving us the opportunity to achieve the level 1 and 2 BSL qualification. I feel that we can make a huge impact in bridging the divide between the police and the Deaf community and build that trust and confidence in the police. I have since had a number of interactions with the Deaf community whilst on patrol in the Llanelli Rural communities and feel that I can be a point of contact for the Deaf community.”

For Sarah Lawrence, the BSL tutor for the course, this programme is ground-breaking, “In my 25 years of teaching BSL, I’ve had the odd police officer attend one of my courses for personal reasons, but this programme by Dyfed Powys Police is much, much, more than that,” Sarah signed to me, “The group of officers involved have simply been outstanding, and Deaf friends visiting the class have been overcome by their ability to sit and chat in BSL about everyday things with them. The group have now moved on to studying for their Level 2 qualification, and Dyfed Powys Police deserve great praise for making this happen. I see acts of tokenism regularly when it comes to public services engaging and consulting with the Deaf community and getting ticks in meaningless boxes from Deaf charities. This programme is Dyfed Powys Police taking action, and taking action that will make a difference. It might even save lives.”

Having been a police officer for 32 years, my passion for policing remains undimmed despite retirement, and I am proud, exceptionally proud, of what Dyfed Powys are doing. For ten years, I have witnessed the everyday discrimination and isolation that comes with being Deaf, and whilst there are still huge inroads to be made in some national policing issues linked to deafness, like the 999 system, Taser and firearms training, and building mutual trust and understanding, the steps being taken by Dyfed Powys Police are a wonderful progressive step.

To demonstrate their progress, and to celebrate St. David’s Day with you all, the officers from Dyfed Powys Police have recorded their performance of the Welsh National Anthem in BSL. Made more difficult by the lockdown in Wales and recorded through the medium of a video conference, we believe this is the first ever sign language performance of their own national anthem by a police team anywhere in the world.

Of course, with full respect for the ownership of BSL lying with the Deaf community, they also wanted to perform it with some of the Deaf members of the 2020 National Eisteddfod group. They hope you enjoy both performances and appreciate they are making their policing services more accessible.

Acknowledgement: With thanks to the National Eisteddfod for allowing use of their instrumental recording of the National Anthem to be used for these recordings.

Article by Simon Deacy O.B.E.

posted in Community / Language & Communication

28th February 2021