A Hearing Loss & Late Deafened Blog

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: Police Brutality Against Deaf and Hard of Hearing People

In Deafness, Hearing Loss, Miscellaneous Ramblings on February 11, 2011 at 12:18 am

Several incidents of police brutality against deaf and hard of hearing people around the country have me concerned.   The most recent and ugliest took place in Seattle last August.  A woodcarver named John Williams was shot four times in the side and back after police officer, Ian Birk, asked him to put down his carving knife.  Family members claim he probably never heard the order.  Williams was deaf in one ear and Birk shouted to him from behind.  Most likely Williams was  listening to music with his one good ear that also had some hearing loss.  His closed knife and headphones were found next to his body after he died.   Officer Birk claims he felt threatened.

I have gone over this in my mind a number of times.  All too often people ask if I’m angry at them when I‘m not.   I have a habit of scrunching my eyebrows when I’m concentrating, trying to figure out if I heard something, what I’m hearing, or where the sound is coming from.  In my mind’s eye I see John Williams walking away from officer Birk, his action  misinterpreted as cockiness.  Then he turns, perhaps wondering if he heard some shouting.  He’s holding a small three inch woodcarving knife.  Maybe he’s frowning with scrunched eyebrows.  A video shows a four second time lapse from the first shout to  shots fired.

Unfortunately things like this happen too often.  A quick Google search has turned up more than a dozen incidents involving police brutality against deaf and hard of hearing people around the country in the past decade.   Most of the victims have been tased, pepper sprayed, beaten or pummeled with bean bags instead of being killed.

Take the case of  Tony Love of Mobile, Alabama, who became sick and went to the rest room.  Store employees called police after they became concerned he had been inside too long.  Since he didn’t respond to knocking on the door, police sprayed pepper spray under the door crack.  When Love came out coughing and choking, they tased him.  His crime?  Using a bathroom too long when he was sick.

Dan Tessien of Modesto, CA was pulled over in a case of mistaken identity.  Police ordered him out of the car, first in English, then in Spanish.  But Tessien did not move because he was deaf.   Within sixty seconds police blew out his back window and began pelting him with nylon bean bags containing 40 grams of lead shot.   Tessien claims he repeatedly yelled to the officers he was deaf while they continued to shoot at him.

Donnell Williams of Wichita Kansas was tased in his own home after getting out of his bath tub.  Neighbors  called police when they mistakenly thought they heard gun shots.   With his hearing aids removed, he didn’t hear police knocking on his door.  They broke in and tased him.

In yet another incident an elderly hard of hearing man in Bruceville- Eddy, TX was tased when he failed to follow police orders to stop.  After the police shot his dog, he became upset, then turned to go back into his house when when the “stop” command was given.  Not hearing, he continued on and was tased.

Finally, there is the well publicized case of  Errol Shaw in Detroit, who was fatally shot by police officer David Krupinsky after he wouldn’t put down his garden rake.    Police had been called because Shaw was mentally ill and agitated.   I  wonder if he would be alive today if he had been hearing?   Witnesses claim police were told he was deaf. Why wasn’t an interpreter called in?  Krupinski was later charged with manslaughter and acquitted of any wrong doing, even though the Detroit Police Department admitted a pepper spray was available and should have been used to subdue Shaw instead of a gun.

So what can deaf and hard of hearing people do to protect themselves against violent police attack?  Sadly not a lot.  When I have been to hard of hearing and deaf conventions in the past I have often been tempted to pick up  a deaf visor card in case of emergency traffic stop.  Booth operators have advised that it’s safe to keep one above your visor  in case you get pulled over.  This way you can  let police know in an official, non-threatening way you need to read their lips or use sign language.   Christopher Ferrell of Fort Worth, TX did just that.  During a routine traffic stop when he was pulled over for speeding Ferrell reached above his visor for his deaf card.  Instead of reading the card or trying to communicate with Ferrell appropriately, the officer pulled him from his car and slammed his face against his back windshield giving him a broken nose.

Five and a half months later Seattle citizens are still wondering why John Williams was gunned down on a sunny day while doing nothing more than carving on a piece of wood.   Deaf people are not the only ones who don’t hear sometimes.  With blue tooth devices and iPods, anyone anywhere can be distracted for four seconds.  During a recent forum to improve relations between the Seattle Police Department and the public, President of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Rich Oneill said,  “incidents wouldn’t happen if citizens complied with the orders of police, even if the officer was wrong.”

If Williams didn’t hear Birk, how could he have complied?  How can any of us comply with police officer demands if we can’t hear?  

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  2. This is absolutely shocking and should never had happened. Police everywhere, need to be more sensitive to the fact that 1 out of 7 people are going to be hearing impaired.
    Police have to be trained in recognizing what to do when demanding someone stop and that the individual may be hard of hearing or deaf and not disobeying the order.

    Yes, many police officers are quick to shoot first and ask questions later and these police officers must be reprimanded and given workshops in dealing with their anxiety levels when confronted with a “possible” criminal. We cannot fault all police officers for being rough. Being a police officer in the 21st century cannot be easy. It’s a highly stressful job to be in. However, there are some officers who are more gun happy than others. There are some officers who have a history on the force for being abusive. These are the officers who need additional training or reprimanding.

    As hearing impaired and deaf people, it’s frightening to think we can get shot down for not hearing an officer. What’s worse is not knowing how many police officers remain on the police force who are abusive in their position and not receiving help.

  3. There have been times, when trying to make my wounded spirit feel better, I’ve said to myself, “At least my hearing loss isn’t life-threatening.” Unfortunately, that may not be true. These situations that you wrote about, Kim, are just tragic, and I do believe these incidents demonstrate the dire need for some training in law enforcement, and many other areas of the workforce, on how to deal with and identify when someone is Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing.

    It’s like I’ve told my husband many times, “I can’t respond to what I’m not understanding!” Example: I was driving, he was the passenger, and I didn’t hear the siren coming at me from the side and couldn’t see the lights flashing until it was close. He had a conniption because I wasn’t understanding that he was yelling at me (of course he was fearful for his life, but losing his cool made things even less understandable) that there was a fire truck and I needed to pull over. I did manage to pull over and saw the fire truck as it turned the corner and drove in front of me, so no harm done, other than the heart attack it appeared he was having, but what hearing people need to understand is that we who are D/d/HoH cannot respond to what we can’t hear or see!!

    Scary indeed!!


  4. I agree. In my very first experience being pulled over in high school, the police officer began talking to me through my rolled down driver’s side window. I am completely deaf on my left side and severely hard of hearing on my right. All I could hear was the walkie-talkie on his belt, blaring in my face while he was talking to me.

    I asked him if he could turn the walkie-talkie off or down so I could hear him. At first, he seemed offended. I then pulled out my driver’s license and pulled back my hair to show him my hearing aid. His face softened and he then turned down the volume on his walkie-talkie and told me what I had done and gave me a warning.

    Not every police officer is going to be perfect; they need to make split-second decisions based on what behavior(s) they are seeing. Were these people running away? No. Did they understand what was being said? No. How many times did the officers repeat what they’d said? Did they say it to their face? Did they try to say it in another language? Don’t know. Did these police officers feel that there safety or the safety of others were in jeopardy? Probably, but based on what?

  5. Thanks for adding more cases of police brutality. Please see my video I did few years ago. It is still the tip of iceberg. This link here: http://youtu.be/mu-o5atdvRQ

    There are more cases that do not get in print. (newspapers).

    Help us keep track of those cases so we can educate them to behave and respect us!


  6. Heya i?m for the primary time here. I found this board and I to find It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I am hoping to present something back and help others like you helped me.

  7. 54 year old deaf man assaults a lone police officer all while managing to receive a concussion, two black eyes, left hand swelled like a balloon, a neck and sternum contusion, left knee scraped raw numerous cuts and scrapes on his face arms and back of both hands. Nazareth PA patch.com. Check it out.email back for more information

  8. The last time I was at the DMV I didn’t know about these (Deaf Visor Cards) and didn’t see any there. Granted I may have missed them on account of not knowing their existence, but is there a process one has to go through in order to get one? I have moderate hearing loss in the left and moderate-severe in the right so I’d much rather have a quick way of demonstrating that to an officer than being the next news story of this sort. I live in Illinois, if that makes a difference.

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