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.