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?