Policing and the deaf

A few years ago, a homeless Seattle man who was deaf in one ear was gunned down by police because he refused their orders to drop the knife he used for whittling. He was facing away from them at the time. In a lawsuit filed this year, a deaf California man alleges that police shot him with a stun gun and beat him until he lost consciousness because they mistook his signing for an aggressive gesture. He was helping a friend move when the police received a false call about a possible burglary. (The police dispute his claims.)

In January, an elderly deaf man in Oklahoma was severely beaten by police during a traffic stop. They say he refused to obey their commands and made a gesture that looked like he was reaching for a gun. He says he was reaching for a hearing-impaired aid so that he could communicate with them. Last June, a Washington state woman said she was beaten by a police officer because she was unable to hear his commands. Last March, a deaf Minnesota man received a little over $300,000 in settlement payments after he was beaten by police during a traffic stop. He says the altercation began when he attempted to tell the first officer he was deaf and asked to communicate in writing.

Finally, in a lawsuit filed this year, a deaf St. Louis man claims police repeatedly fired a Taser gun at him and severely beat him because he couldn’t communicate to them why he had stopped on the side of the road. (He had a flat tire, then suffered a hypoglycemic attack.)

As is often the case with alleged police abuse, there are no comprehensive statistics on incidents stemming from a law enforcement officer’s inability to recognize or communicate with someone who is deaf or hearing-impaired. So there’s no way of knowing if these incidents are common or rare, or on the rise or in decline. They happen enough, however, that advocates for the deaf and civil liberties advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union see cause for concern. So here’s a video from the latter on deaf rights with respect to police featuring Marlee Matlin. It’s worth watching, whether you’re hearing-impaired or not.

Of course, knowing your rights won’t do you much good if you’re in the process of getting beaten or shot with a stun gun. So more importantly, police agencies need better training on how to recognize deaf people and interact with them. (That’s also true when it comes to disabled people in general.)

 

 

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · April 24