On Deaf Ears

It was entirely coincidental that the example of a deaf person was used as an alternative example to police use of force against an autistic child. The story broke shortly thereafter of Sgt. Christopher Barnes shooting, and killing, Magdiel Sanchez for the crime of being deaf.

Oklahoma City police officers who opened fire on a man in front of his home as he approached them holding a metal pipe didn’t hear witnesses yelling that he was deaf, a department official said Wednesday.

Magdiel Sanchez, 35, wasn’t obeying the officers’ commands before one shot him with a gun and the other with a Taser on Tuesday night, police Capt. Bo Mathews said at a news conference. He said witnesses were yelling “he can’t hear you” before the officers fired, but they didn’t hear them.

Sanchez wasn’t disobeying commands. One can’t disobey what one doesn’t know. One can’t know when one can’t hear. You can’t blame a deaf man for being deaf, but they killed him for it anyway.

The cops were there because a car involved in a hit and run was driven to that address. The hit and run didn’t involve another person, and the driver was Sanchez’s father. When police arrived, Sanchez was on the porch of his home. Police yelled at him. He approached, with a “pipe” with a leather wrist band on it, because that’s what he was holding, as he usually did, purportedly to keep away stray dogs. Regardless of how odd this may sound to some, in the hands of someone on the good-guy curve, this was simply their normal.

But the cops didn’t know Sanchez’s normal. Or his inability to hear, even though the neighbors were screaming at them.

“In those situations, very volatile situations, you have a weapon out, you can get what they call tunnel vision, or you can really lock in to just the person that has the weapon that’d be the threat against you,” Mathews said. “I don’t know exactly what the officers were thinking at that point.”

Sanchez, who had no apparent criminal history, died at the scene.

By “very volatile situations,” Capt. Bo Mathews wasn’t referring to the very banal situation where a perfectly innocent deaf guy walked toward police who wanted something from him that he was incapable of understanding. To Sanchez, they obviously weren’t there for him, as he had done nothing except sit on his porch and be deaf.

Perhaps the problem was “tunnel vision,” that the police were so focused on the potential threat before them of an unknown man with what could well be a weapon in hand, approaching them, coming within distance to strike them with the object. They didn’t know, and they were not going to be distracted by the shouting neighbors and risk that split second when the attack could come.

A pipe, or a stick, or whatever the man who just wasn’t doing as commanded was carrying, could strike their heads, bash their brains in, keep them from going home for dinner that night with their beloved wife and children. No job is worth that. No one else is worth that. That was not going to be the day they died.

In the official language of the police, it was all quite sanitary.

Police said the officers told Sanchez to drop the pipe, but Sanchez continued to advance toward Sgt. Barnes. Police later verified that Sanchez was deaf, but the officers didn’t know that at the time of the incident.

Lt. Lindsay deployed his Taser, and at the same time, Sgt. Barnes discharged his firearm toward Sanchez, police said. Sanchez was shot and pronounced dead at the scene.

Two cops were alive. One deaf guy was dead. It wasn’t that Barnes, who “discharged his gun,” which takes some of the sting away that “put a bullet into Sanchez” might cause, wanted to kill a deaf guy. Anyone. He didn’t wake up that morning and say to himself, “I’m going to kill a human being today.” And now, afterward, he no doubt has terrible regret about being responsible for the death of an innocent human being, all because of a silly missing piece of information, that he was deaf.

Deaf people don’t look deaf. They don’t have “deaf” tattooed on their forehead in big letters on the back of their nylon jackets, like the police do. How would Barnes have known, but for the screaming neighbors? He wasn’t some venal killer with a badge like Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke who murdered Laquan McDonald because he could. If you met Barnes at a party, he might very well be a kind, thoughtful, dedicated guy. He just didn’t want to die that day and wasn’t going to take chances with his children becoming fatherless for the sake of Sanchez.

Apologists can explain that Sanchez could have realized that his holding the stick, or pipe, or whatever way you prefer to characterize what was in his hands, presented a threat to the police. He should have realized it. He should have dropped it. He should have not made them feel threatened, not made them shoot him. Sanchez could have changed the equation.

After a tragedy occurs, it’s easy to see ways it could have been avoided, but it’s unavailing. Of the many actions and reactions that might have diffused the situation, we can pinpoint what would have served everyone’s interests by post hoc deconstruction. But Sanchez approached Barnes and Lt. Lindsay from the “good-guy curve,” unaware of any reason why he would possibly pose a concern, no less a threat, to the police.

There are a number of issues at play in the effort to make sense of the senseless. Would financial incentives, such as the elimination of Qualified Immunity, have altered Barnes’ decision to pull the trigger? Would an internal culture of not shooting at the most attenuated potential threat and being the scared cop have caused him to hold his fire? Would a million women in pink knit hats marching on Washington in the name of social justice have made him pause?

The one thing that couldn’t be changed, no matter what, is that Magdiel Sanchez was deaf and couldn’t comply with commands he couldn’t hear. And so he’s dead.

24 thoughts on “On Deaf Ears

  1. B. McLeod

    I thought it was an odd coincidence as well. Of course, in this instance, the deaf guy was walking toward the officers and could see them. Too bad about not hearing the commands, but a little thought would likely have shown him that continuing toward them with his makeshift blunt trauma tool was not a good idea. This one will probably be ruled “justified” (and maybe there will be more “training”).

    1. REvers

      That’s what the cops say he did, but there were no body cams so they can say whatever the hell they want to say.

    2. SHG Post author

      Even assuming the story is accurate, does a totally innocent deaf guy with no clue why police have any interest in him deserve to die because he didn’t appreciate their fear sufficiently?

      1. B. McLeod

        To take a line from Clint Eastwood, “Deserving’s got nothing to do with it.” The First Rule is not about fairness or guilt or penalties for guilt.

  2. DHMCarver

    Parsing these accounts of officer involved shootings reminds me of reading between the lines of Pravda articles in the Cold War days. There’s a truth there, but it is a very specific, carefully tailored truth.

    1. SHG Post author

      There was a time only the commies were so shameless. But we catch up eventually. As they say in Russia, there’s no truth in the News and no news in the Truth.

  3. Karl Kolchak

    I’m a retired law enforcement officer, and I’m so old (52) I remember being taught only to use the level of force necessary to defuse a situation. They don’t teach LEOs that way anymore, which is why incidents like this have become so common. The excuse is officer safety, but that is no excuse given that garbagemen have a far higher on the job fatality rate than police officers. I never thought I would become ashamed of my former profession, but I am.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m “so old” too (even older than you), and I’ve been trying for years to explain that this wasn’t the perspective cops had years ago. It’s foreign to younger people, LEOs and non. I’ve watched it slide down the slope from muzzle flash to glint of steel to threatening gesture to essentially nothing before a cop fired out of fear, and believe that the push to man up has to come from within cop culture, as cops will never accept what us outsiders say because we don’t “get it.”

      Maybe you old LEOs can make it happen. They surely won’t listen to me.

      1. B. McLeod

        I think this is going to be one of those trends that only goes the one way (like 8th amendment slide). I don’t see anything on the horizon that would tend to make them less afraid or less inclined to summary action based on the fear.

        I suppose one possible solution would be to impose counter-insurgency infantry tactics. Departments could arm beat officers only with TASERS, and then have armed tactical teams that only deploy if the beat officers are attacked. This would allow them to draw out, find and engage (with a high degree of confidence) the armed criminal elements who are actual threats. It would entail acceptance of an elevated casualty level for beat officers. Promotion from beat patrols to the tactical teams could be used to reward superior service and judgment, and demotion from the tactical teams to beat positions could be used to penalize excessive force and other misconduct.

        1. SHG Post author

          Interesting idea, though Seattle tried to introduce the notion of de-escalation into their use of force continuum and got sued by the Union (the union lost). If they ever tried to strip beat cops of guns, the screaming would be louder than feminists in the humor section of a bookstore.

          But I don’t agree that the culture can’t be changed. I think cops can man up again, without any significant cost in casualties, if the culture within wants it to be so. And I think the smarter cops realize they’re better off cleaning up their own mess than Liz Warren doing it for them.

          1. B. McLeod

            The bargaining units certainly would not like it, and actuarial adjustments would have to be made in the funding policies for the police death and disability benefit systems. However, there are sizeable metropolitan police forces around the world whose beat officers carry no firearms, so the concept is not unproven.

            Also, setting the weapons restrictions on beat officers should result, over time, in deterring the more fearful candidates from applying. If the beat positions were then made the exclusive entry level positions, this benefit eventually would work a cultural change through the whole organization. There would be nobody at any decisional level who proved unable to function initially in a beat position.

          2. Jay

            Do you think the culture could be changed if civil lawsuits against cops were paid by retirement funds instead of taxpayers?

            Slightly off topic, any guess why the general citizenry seems to be okay with paying the penalties when cops are found guilty?

            1. SHG Post author

              I certainly think getting rid of qualified immunity and adjusting who pays the damages for 1983 suits would cause a significant shift in culture. I’m not sure the retirement fund idea is workable, but there are ways to make the cops feel the pain. And good cops won’t want to feel the financial pain caused by bad cops.

              As for why citizens don’t seem to care, the cost is mixed up in the general budget. They don’t actually feel the pain, as it’s subsumed in the broader pain of taxes.

  4. Scott Jacobs

    Ok, I can’t be the only one with an issue with this…

    Oklahoma City police officers who opened fire on a man in front of his home as he approached them holding a metal pipe didn’t hear witnesses yelling that he was deaf, a department official said Wednesday.

    There couldn’t have been a better way to structure the facts here? What’s next? “Officers didn’t see that the man shot and killed sitting in the city park was blind”?

  5. Nemo

    There are many forms of courage, but to put it in military terms, courage is not the lack of fear, but carrying on through your fear and carrying out the mission. Within that framework, one who is afraid, but follows the courageous in carrying out the mission, is not a coward. Only he who abandons the mission, and acts solely as benefits his personal safety is a coward.

    By that logic, the shooter was a coward, not that the “non-civilian” police would agree. But the fact remains, that unless the mission of the officers that day was to kill the man, whatever mission they had was abandoned, and they did what they believed would keep them safe, and screw the mission.


    1. B. McLeod

      “Mission orders” ordinarily aren’t that focused. They might be as open as “keep the peace” or “enforce the law.” You are barking up a stupid tree with this one.

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