Some of the saddest recurring experiences in the interactions between law enforcement and the public are those involving people who are physically or mentally “challenged” in some way. It’s a clash between demand and disability. The cops demand and the disability precludes compliance.
Turley posts about Christopher Ferrell, a deaf man stopped by Fort Worth Officer J.A. Miller.
It began with Christopher Ferrell, 43, being pulled over in his maroon sedan for speeding. Ferrell reached for his identification to inform the officer of his disability. But, Officer J.A. Miller said he was concerned Ferrell was reaching for a gun. Miller withdrew his gun, grabbed Ferrell, swung him around and slammed his head into the rear windshield. “He was trying to show his identification to the officer so that the officer would know that he was simply unable to communicate with him on a normal basis,” Goetz said.
“It did break his nose,” [Ferrell Attorney Paul] Goetz said of the incident. “There was a lot of blood.”
The best one can say is that at least Miller didn’t tase him. That can’t be said for Donnell Williams, also deaf, of Wichita.
Donnell Williams had just gotten out of the bath tub, wearing only a towel around his waist, when he turned the corner to see guns pointing right at him. “I ain’t never been so scared,” says Williams.
Police forced entry into Williams home while responding to a shooting, but it turned out to be a false call. They had no idea at the time the call wasn’t real and that Williams is hearing impaired. Without his hearing aid he is basically deaf.
“I kept going to my ear yelling that I was scared. I can’t hear! I can’t hear!”
Officers were worried about their own safety because at the time it appeared Williams was refusing to obey their commands to show his hands. That’s when they shot him with a Taser.
There are a number of distinctions that makes these scenarios particularly painful, and particularly troubling. On the one hand, disabled people cannot be faulted for being disabled. Unlike the perennial favorites, drunks or druggies, about whom police are fond of noting that they are inherently evil, worthless people when beaten, maimed or killed, even though the harm bore no connection to their faults or “long criminal history,” disabled people can’t be blamed for being disabled.
On the other hand, we must bear in mind the prime directive of all police work: Get home alive. No matter how much training an officer is given, a cop has a split second to determine whether he is about to face a bullet or about to become the poster boy for police abuse. Most will chose life, even at the risk of making a mistake.
This is not the same scenario as the cop who sadistically abuses his power to harm someone for failing to bow to his authority. This is about fear of the unknown, complicated by what the cop perceives as the wrong reaction to his command. They are trained to take charge of the situation first. Traffic stops are particularly problematic since they don’t know if they’ve just stopped the monsignor or the drug kingpin, and they only need to make the mistake of assuming that the person in the car is harmless once.
But this doesn’t help a disabled person. He can’t change his disability any more than a cop can change his fear. Hearing impairment presents a particular problem, since verbal commands are the primary means for an officer to seize control, and refusal to abide the commands are the primary hallmark of a threat. But it goes farther, as has happened with autistic children, psychotic adults and people in extremis. I’ve urged parents of learning disabled children to forge a relationship with their local police so that their children are recognized as disabled should they have an encounter in the future.
By no means should this be construed as an apology of any sort for the violent conduct of a cop in excess of that necessary to protect himself. In Christopher Ferrell’s case, Officer Miller’s slamming his head against the rear window was an pointless, vicious assault that would have put anyone without a badge in jail. Miller only lost two days pay.
Strangely, one of the outcomes of the Ferrell case is that the Forth Worth Police Department has announced that it will make sign language interpreters available to officers within a half hour of a request. While fine, this would have done absolutely nothing to help Christopher Ferrell. Great solution to the wrong problem.
We still need some mechanism for those with disabilities to be securely protected from the police. And every story of a disabled person harmed for no reason other than being disabled drives him this dilemma. We can’t demand that blind people see or deaf people hear. We can’t expect cops to expose themselves to harm from an unknown person, waiting patiently to learn whether he is disabled to dangerous. We’ve got a real problem.
But on the third hand, when a cop can’t control himself enough to not slam a subdued man’s head against a window, and faces only the most trivial of consequences, if any, for conduct that would put any other member of society behind bars, we’ve got a real problem as well.