On August 18, a North Carolina state trooper shot and killed 29-year-old Daniel Harris — who was not only unarmed, but deaf — over a speeding violation just feet away from him home.
On August 8, two Louisville Metro police officers fatally shot [WARNING: graphic video] Army Veteran Darnell Wicker, a 57-year old landscaper who was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other. Police had been called to the home by his girlfriend for a domestic dispute. As Wicker exited the home with a handsaw he used for his job as a landscaper, there was maybe two seconds between the time police said “drop it” and shots being fired.
On June 23, 2015, Randall Waddel was shot in the back by police as he tried to run out of a store. Waddell had attempted to walk away from an officer with a knife behind his back, never once holding it up or attempting to use it on anyone. Waddell was legally deaf, had no hearing aids and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
On September 20, 2014, Hernandez, a sheriff’s deputy who was plainly clothed at the time of the incident, fired six shots and killed Edward Miller, a deaf man, while he was sitting inside a vehicle at a tow yard. Hernandez reported that Miller failed to obey commands and had a concealed weapon. Miller’s son, who was also at the tow yard, informed deputies that his father could not hear them and had a license to carry a concealed weapon.
On August 30, 2010, John Williams, a First Nation woodcarver, was walking down the street holding a small knife, which was within legal limits, and a block of wood. Officer Ian Birk approached him from the rear and began ordering him to drop the knife, then shot him five times when he didn’t comply. Williams had severe hearing loss and was wearing an earbud in his semi-functional ear.
These shootings are tragic but also indicative of a bigger problem within the United States. These cases show the severe lack of training law enforcement receives on how to deal with deaf and other disabled individuals. . According to a report released in March by the Ruderman Family Foundation – “disabled [including deaf] individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers.”
In 2006,the American with Disabilities Act website published a basic guide for officers about communicating effectively with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It suggests a variety of ways for police to communicate with deaf individuals, such as, gestures, pen and paper, teletypewriters or sign language interpreters. However, the experience of many deaf individuals with law-enforcement will show that even the basic ADA guidelines are not followed.
Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf, an organization that promotes equal access to the legal system for those who are deaf, provides a more extensive Google chart on deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens whom the police have killed, beaten, or refused to communicate with in light of the basic ADA guidelines.
On August 23, after the Harris shooting, the National Association of the Deaf, in a public statement, called on law enforcement to improve their training to better understand how to interact with a deaf person.
“We express our heartfelt apologies to Daniel’s family and the deaf and hard of hearing community. Daniel isn’t the first deaf person who was wrongfully shot by the police,” NAD President Melissa Draganac-Hawk said in a signed video statement. “All police departments in every state should undergo appropriate training to learn best practices when faced with a deaf person. If a person does not respond to verbal commands, the police needs to be aware of the possibility that the person may be deaf and not react by shooting. All police departments must work with us to improve and avoid this from happening again.”
There are many ways for police officers to communicate with the deaf, like pen and paper, a sign language interpreter or the officers using basic sign language themselves. For example, Smart Coos, a startup that I founded, offers online language classes for children to excel in their native language or learn a second language. Smart Coos offers 25-minute classes in sign language, as well. At this time, the startup will partner with police departments from across the country to help officers learn basic sign language phrases to communicate with deaf individuals. City, county, or state agency representatives may e-mail email@example.com to participate. However, the means of communication are irrelevant when an officer is not open to the possibility that the individual may not be responding to his commands for a good reason, such as the inability to hear the commands.
If the police officers that shot Harris, Wicker, Waddell, Miller and Williams had the proper training to quickly recognize the signs of a disabled individual, effectively communicate with that individual and resolve the issues without shooting first — the results may have been very different for Harris, Wicker, Waddell, Miller or Williams.