Fatal Shooting of Deaf Man Raises Concerns About Police Training

By Allen Smith, J.D. Aug 31, 2016
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Incidents of police violence toward people with disabilities—and people who are deaf, in particular—is all too common, experts say.

Daniel Harris, killed by a North Carolina state trooper Aug. 18, wasn't the first deaf person who has been shot to death by the police, according to Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. Better training in how to communicate with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), could help prevent such fatalities, noted Patti Perez, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in San Diego.

Harris initially refused to stop when a state trooper tried to pull him over for speeding. After a seven-mile chase into a Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood near his home, Harris exited his car, an encounter took place between the trooper and him, and the trooper shot Harris, who died at the scene, according to the Charlotte Observer. The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into the incident and has placed the officer on administrative leave, which is standard procedure when the bureau investigates a matter, the Associated Press reports.

Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf, an organization that promotes equal access to the legal system for those who are deaf, has created a Google chart on deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens who the police have killed or beaten. "While this chart may not be comprehensive, it reflects the seriousness of this problem," Rosenblum told SHRM Online

'Missing Word in Media Coverage'

Relatedly, the Ruderman Family Foundation released a report in March, stating that "disability is the missing word in media coverage of police violence. Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers." With offices in Boston and Israel, the foundation advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities. 

Starting with the death of a young man with Down syndrome, Ethan Saylor, in January 2013, the report focused on three years of media coverage of police violence against people with disabilities. After reviewing eight selected cases, the report found that in the media coverage:

  • The individuals' disabilities were unmentioned or were listed as attributes without context.
  • Impairments were used to evoke pity or sympathy for the victim.
  • Medical conditions or mental illnesses were used to blame victims for their deaths.

ADA Training

"All law enforcement officers need to understand that deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals communicate in ways that are different" from most officers' way of talking, Rosenblum said. Individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing may rely on American Sign Language (ASL), lip reading or, in some circumstances, communicating with a pen and paper, for example. "Communication access is mandated by federal and state civil rights laws, and law enforcement officers have to be prepared to provide such access whenever possible. This is especially important in life-and-death situations."

Rosenblum said that identifying information in law enforcement databases might note whether someone is a deaf driver based on their license plate registration. But law enforcement officers should also have access to better training so they can recognize when someone might be hard-of-hearing.

"Too often, officers make verbal orders for individuals to comply and act aggressively when those individuals do not comply," Rosenblum said. "Deaf individuals often are unable to understand the verbal commands of law enforcement officers, and this has led to many physical altercations between law enforcement officers and deaf individuals over the years, with some resulting in death."

Merely including a section in a training manual on how to communicate with people who are hard-of-hearing isn't enough. North Carolina's highway patrol training manual has a section that deals with interacting with suspects and victims who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, as well as those with autism, visual impairments, mobility issues and Alzheimer's disease, according to the Charlotte Observer. Perez said, "While having language in the law enforcement training manual is a good start, this incident indicates that more hands-on training—live, video—should take place not just in North Carolina, but nationwide. As is true with all issues related to the ADA, the key is to be creative and take a problem-solving approach."

Perez added, "To that end, HR and other leaders of police departments should think of creative ways to address the needs and concerns from the police officer's perspective, such as maintaining peace and security and protecting themselves, while still respecting the rights of deaf citizens."

She said some considerations include:

  • Access to pen and paper. Perez said that some people who are deaf have been stopped by officers and then been shot when the individual made a quick move for a pen and notepad in his or her coat pocket or glove compartment. "Although there will be limitations in terms of what can be provided on the road, there should definitely be resources, such as ASL interpreters, if a deaf individual is arrested and brought to a police station," Perez said.
  • Outreach to advocacy groups. These groups might be able to suggest better language for handbooks, as well as training scenarios, and might train police officers.
  • Incorporating some ASL training. Advocacy groups might help officers understand the most important phrases they should know how to sign, such as, "Please keep your hands where I can see them," "I've stopped you for … ," "Do you need a sign language interpreter?" and other vital phrases. "Although it would not be reasonable to expect officers to become fluent in ASL, they might look to basic language training officers receive in languages other than English," Perez noted. "For example, what language training do officers receive if they patrol an area that is made up of predominantly Spanish-speaking individuals?"
"In many situations, a tragic outcome could have been prevented if the police officer had received and took to heart training on how to deal with persons with various kinds of disabilities that may make it difficult for the person to follow an officer's directions or commands, such as being deaf, having autism or having some type of mental illness," said Jonathan Mook, an attorney with DiMuroGinsberg in Alexandria, Va.

"Any loss of life regardless of the circumstances is truly a tragic and sad event for all involved. Let us all refrain from making assumptions or drawing conclusions prior to the internal and independent review," said North Carolina Department of Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry. "While the highway patrol, the State Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney's office conduct their respective reviews, we are keeping all those affected by this tragedy in our thoughts and prayers."
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