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Whatcom County, Department of Justice reach agreement to ensure ADA compliance

Department of Justice seal
Jose Luis Magana
/
The Associated Press file
Department of Justice seal

The federal Justice Department announced Monday that law enforcement in Whatcom County plans to accommodate people with hearing loss. 

The agreement follows two complaints Donald Pratt, a deaf man, filed with the county.

The first was related to a 2011 incident when his estranged son filed a false report, saying Pratt had pointed a gun at his mother. Sheriff's deputies handcuffed Pratt and placed him in a patrol car for at least half an hour. He was unable to verbally ask why he was being detained, and because he could not ask to use the bathroom, he soiled his pants.  

The county settled with Pratt in 2013 for more than $62,000 over its violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

 
Five years later, in 2018, one of Pratt’s tenants accused him of physical assault and reported him to the sheriff’s office. Deputies arrested Pratt again — and again did not provide a sign language interpreter. 

Pratt claimed the court also forced him to spend extra time in jail because it couldn’t provide an American Sign Language interpreter. 

"Eventually they arrested him for a felony charge without ever securing an interpreter or allowing him to effectively tell his side of the story," explained Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Morehead.
 
She says law enforcement violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by only writing notes to communicate with Pratt. 

Now, the Whatcom County sheriff and public defender have promised to hire sign language interpreters able to assist deputies. 

Morehead says Whatcom County officials "have agreed that they will enter into contracts with providers that provide interpreter services so that they won't have this issue of sort of scrambling at the last minute to try to find an interpreter.”

As part of the agreement, the sheriff’s office is paying Pratt another $60,000. 

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. Reach her at lfowler@knkx.org.