Can You Hear Me?

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. 

9 comments on “Can You Hear Me?

  1. Windypundit

    It sounds like there might be a use here for some sort of cooperative signaling and educational campaign. E.g. teach all deaf people to signal their deafness by a common signal and teach all police officers to recognize it.

    It would take some thought to get it right, so that bad guys can’t abuse it. And then wouldn’t it be safer just to teach all schoolchildren the proper protocol for surrendering to the police…but who wants to live like that?

  2. SHG

    It’s a good idea, but you seem the problem clearly.  There is an “answer” like deaf stickers on cars, for example, but then we stygmatize people who are disabled for their own safety from our own police.  It’s just crazy.

  3. Deborah

    The physically disabled are provided identification for their license plates and an ID they can put on the dashboard of any vehicle. Perhaps the DMV can issue an ID for other disabled citizens as a heads up for the Gestapo. This may reduce unwarranted assaults for ‘them’; but what about the rest of us?

  4. Doug Cornelius

    I wonder if these two incidents are disability problems or communications problems. In both cases, the victim could not understand the commands. I think the same result may have occurred if the victim did not understand English.

    The victims are clearly more sympathetic because of their disability, making the cops look like overly aggressive jerks. Would we have the same reaction if the victims only spoke Russian and no English?

  5. SHG

    While it’s no crime to speak a language other than English, I think most people in the United States would expect people to have at least the most limited ability to understand “stop” or “freeze”.  Even if not the word, then the tone.  Unlike the non-English speaking person who can learn to speak sufficient English to function, a deaf person can’t learn to “hear enough” to get by. 

    I think you’re right that non-English speaking people would still be sympathetic, but not as much as a disabled person, who is faultless for having a disability and powerless to change it.  Of course, if it was a blind person driving the car, that presents a different issue altogether.

  6. Jdog

    *sigh* From the news story (emphasis added):

    “This isolated incident doesn’t reflect the professional quality service that the Fort Worth Police Department provides to the citizens of Fort Worth,” said Sgt. Pedro Criado, with the Fort Worth Police Department.

    Well, at least they gave the cop a two-day rip, and not a medal. Grading on the curve, that’s a B.

  7. SHG

    I can haz medal?

    No, you cannot haz medal!

    If we start grading cops on curve, we’ll be in worse shape than Biglaw hiring legacy Harvard grads with a gentlemen’s “C”.  Considering where Ohio places the bar, 2 days without pay is warranted only for mass murder (another isolated incident).

  8. Jdog

    If we start grading cops on the curve, we’ll be in worse shape than Biglaw hiring legacy Harvard grads with a gentlemen’s “C”.
    Well, but we are, and we (well, at least my public servants) have been. Take the medals [– ObHenny: please]. Hereabouts, if a cop is involved in a shooting and doesn’t get disciplined (rare) or prosecuted (yeah, right), he gets a medal. Period*. In fact, when there was some suggestion that maybe the SWAT guys who shot up the Hmong family’s house while serving a warrant supposedly on some Rolling 60’s Crips maybe kinda oughta not get medals for it, the union threw a fit at the notion of violating that precedent, and, of course, they got the medals.

    * Okay, that’s not quite accurate. When Chuck Storlie shot the hell out of Duy Ngo, neither of them got medals.

  9. Blind Guy

    As you all know the international symbol for blindness is a white cane. Many people not totally blind still use the white cane so they can be identified by others as having serious vision problems. Indeed, there is now in use an “identification cane” which is made for use by those who normally would not use the traditional white cane so that those with “low vision” can be identified as well.

    Unfortunately, the white cane identifies us to the jerks as well.

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