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Police Brutality and Killings of Deaf People on the Rise

Posted by Joseph Tully | Nov 01, 2017

On September 21, 2017, Oklahoma City police shot and killed Magdiel Sanchez on the 35 year old man's porch. The reason he was shot dead? Sanchez was holding a metal pipe and didn't respond to police officer's demands to put it down.

Because in their minds he had the audacity to disobey their orders, he died. However, Sanchez wasn't ignoring the police officers. He was deaf and had no idea what they were asking him to do. Neighbors screamed to the police that Sanchez couldn't hear and looked on in horror as these officers took his life.

He's another statistic on the list of disabled people killed by cops who didn't know their victim was disabled.

HEARD Fights Back

According to the national organization Helping to Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), Sanchez is the fifth deaf person to lose his life in recent years because of a police misunderstanding. Hundreds more became victims of police brutality because they could not respond to an officer's orders.

Talila A. Lewis, HEARD's founder, wrote an account of police brutality against deaf people. She shared the story of Robert Kim, a man fixing a flat tire in St. Louis, MO, when he experienced a diabetic episode. When police officers appeared, Kim tried to make them understand that he was deaf and seriously ill – not drunk.

Instead, police officers tasered Kim for not responding to their instructions. He was charged with resisting arrest. When Kim was finally brought to a hospital, doctors found him in a “life-threatening” situation. Fortunately, a dash-cam video recorded the whole gruesome scene, and Kim sued the department.

Charges were dropped, but in the course of the investigation, it was discovered that Kim was the second deaf person in less than a month tasered by law enforcement personnel at the Bridgeton Police Department.

In 2014, an elderly deaf man named Pearl Pearson, also of Oklahoma City, tried to show a police officer a placard stating he was deaf when the cop pulled him out of his truck. Two other officers joined the first in hitting Pearson for seven minutes, dislocating his shoulder and breaking blood vessels in both of his eyes from the severity of the beating.

The dashcam picks up the police cursing after the beating when they run Pearson's license and discover he cannot hear. Pearson was charged with resisting arrest – the officers involved were not charged.

The list of police brutality and fatal shootings goes on and on. Police officers, even after realizing a person is deaf, often do not allow interpreters – or even permit the detainee to use a pen and paper to explain their situation. It's appalling.

HEARD is partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union to create a sign language video for the deaf community on dealing with the police. That's a start, but it's really police departments that are responsible for ensuring their officers receive information about deaf communication and dealing with deaf individuals.

Education and Training

In 2013, Amaury Murgado, a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office wrote an account for Police magazine about how he almost shot a deaf suspect early in his career.

Murgado didn't realize the man was deaf, and when the suspect reached into his jacket, Murgado assumed he was taking out a weapon. “Then, as any young first-year rookie would do, I started screaming commands at him; because any rookie knows, if the subject doesn't understand you the first time, shouting louder always helps you get your point across. As it turns out, he wasn't reaching for a gun but for a laminated card that explained he was deaf, a mute, and had directions for obtaining an emergency contact,” according to Murgado.

He advised law enforcement personnel to become aware of ADA regulations, such as the use of interpreters for any type of complex transaction between police and a deaf individual. That doesn't include using a family member of the suspect, because such interpretation is often biased.

“You also can't expect the hearing impaired to provide you with an interpreter,” he writes. “The ADA places the burden on the law enforcement agency to provide communication aids or services to effectively communicate unless otherwise excluded by law.” One has to wonder though, will the interpreter that the police get be fair to the deaf defendant?

No Excuse

It's bad enough that deaf people are subject to police brutality and death because of officers' ignorance. What's just as appalling is that the police involved are seldom charged with a crime. If the dashcam weren't available in the Kim and Pearson cases, the cops may have gotten away with their claims of “resisting arrest.”

Their cities may settle with the victim or his survivors, but the police get away with the crime. There's no excuse for this behavior, for the failure for them to be held accountable and for law enforcement not having a basic awareness of how to deal with deaf suspects.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...