Tuesday, December 07, 2010

'Listen up,' deaf people: A cop is shouting at you

The Austin Chronicle's Jordan Smith has a good article this week on problematic interactions between local cops and the deaf community. The central, featured story stems from an incident in 2009, when a "24-year-old found herself in trouble with the Austin Police Department – booked into jail for resisting arrest, a charge punishable by up to a year in jail – because she could not hear Officer Steven Willis yelling at her to stop as she walked along a North Austin sidewalk with her girlfriend, Ceci Bermudez." Reports Smith:
not once during what became a three-hour encounter with APD did any one of the officers at the scene – in all there were three, including a supervisor (an EMS crew was also called to check out Valdez, who was scraped and limping after being forced to the ground by Willis) – attempt to communicate with Valdez in any meaningful way. Instead, as the police video reflects, they merely raised their voices and repeated the same commands multiple times – as if speaking louder would somehow cure Valdez's deafness. It seems that because Valdez, who attended mainstream public schools, has learned to "vocalize" fairly well, the officers completely disregarded her disability. In fact, when Willis cuffed Valdez, he did so with her hands behind her back, which effectively ended any opportunity for her to communicate with him by signing or writing notes.
Smith goes through the dashcam video of the incident in some detail (excerpts from which are provided at the end of the story), describing how the officer involved apparently believed yelling at the suspect would somehow overcome her deafness. I was reminded by the story of trips to Mexico where I've seen Americans who apparently think speaking slowly or raising their voice would cause whoever they're speaking to to suddenly understand English. Shouting at a deaf person to "Listen up" is one of the most idiotic things I've heard on a dashcam video in quite a while.

Several critical policy concerns arise from the story: First, APD doesn't enforce its own policy of providing interpreters for deaf people and many if not most officers are either unaware of or ignore the policy. Also, APD officers supposedly certified as "bilingual" in sign language often are incompetent at it (in one example given an officer was "signing 'jail' instead of 'wait,' and 'fuck you' instead of 'OK.'"). Finally, there may be "Brady violations" (failure to disclose exculpatory evidence) from police failing to retain written notes from interactions with deaf people.

I'd bet dollars to donuts these same issues arise in many if not most other departments around the state. Jordan did a fine job on this story, which deserves to be read in full.


Anonymous said...


Prison Doc said...

If it weren't so sad it would be funny...in the mid-1970s the original Saturday Night Live had a sketch were comedian Garrett Morris, paying an "anchorman", did "News for the Hard of Hearing" wherein he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled into the camera...reminds one of this APD misadventure.

Ryan Paige said...

It's a good thing that police officer was there to stop what he perceived to be a fight before someone got thrown to the ground and injured.

Oh wait.

Anonymous said...

on a deaf specific dating site Deaftime.com, it requires members to disclose their condition upfront

Charlie O said...

One take away from the article is what a blatant work of fiction the police report is. As are most police reports. I've read a couple from my own encounters with police in different cities and states and had to wonder if the cop was on the same planet I was based on what they wrote into the police report. Police reports aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Or anything else.

shg said...

Sadly, this is an ongoing issue, with other incidents arising from car stops of deaf people (yes, they are allowed to drive) where they were tased for failure to heed commands to stay in their car.

Further, it happens to people with all types of disabilities that aren't glaringly obvious, and a few that are, particularly involving children, who are even less capable of making their disabilities known.

As much as this can (and has, as in the old SNL Garrett Morris skit) be funny, it too often results in tragedy for a disabled person, with the police officer feeling duly horrible after the harm has been done. Yet it's a recurring problem and, to my knowledge, there has never been a policy or approach that has adequately protected disabled people from the police.

This is truly a terrible threat to disabled people, and there really isn't anything they can do to protect themselves.