Police Interaction with the Deaf

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Jonathan Dollhopf

In recent weeks, two men with hearing loss have been shot and killed by police. Daniel Harris, 29, was deaf and used American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate; Darnell Wicker, 57, had a lesser degree of hearing loss and did not use ASL. The controversy and circumstances surrounding these killings is a serious concern within the Deaf community.

Daniel Harris was shot near his home in Charlotte, NC, by a state trooper after an eight-mile pursuit. In the minutes before his murder, a state trooper tried to pull Harris over for a speeding violation. When Daniel got out of the car, he was shot at the scene. Harris’ brother said Daniel tried to communicate with the officer in ASL right when he got out the car. According to Harris’ brother, Daniel was afraid of police.

Darnell Wicker lost his life in Louisville, KY, when two police officers fatally shot Wicker in the his girlfriend’s apartment. A dispute between Wicker and his girlfriend led to police being called.  While Wicker retrieved a knife and a handsaw from inside the apartment, his girlfriend’s daughter told the 911 dispatcher about the weapons Wicker possessed. When the police arrived on the scene Wicker was leaving the apartment, and was armed with these items. When the police officers ordered Wicker to drop the objects, Wicker did not comply. We know from a body camera worn by the officers, that the first shot was fired less than ten seconds after the officer got out of his squad car.

Regardless of Daniel Harris’ and Darnel Wicker’s actions, they were shot and killed because they couldn’t hear the officers’ orders. Since these murders, members of the Deaf community frequently feel scared for our own safety. As a deaf man, I worry that I may find myself in a situation where I need to communicate with cops, but am unable to do so. I have this same concern for my friends with hearing loss.

The shootings might have been prevented if police had received training on Deaf-interactions, and their respective squads had implemented procedures and protocols on how to interact with Deaf and hard of hearing individuals. In response to these senseless tragedies, the Deaf community is demanding that all police departments must work with us to improve existing practices and prevent such brutality from happening again.

To improve relations and interactions with Deaf individuals, troubled police precincts should looks at the strides of fellow departments.  Perhaps because Rochester, NY, has the one of the largest per capita Deaf populations in the nation, the Rochester Police Department (RPD) has a good relationship with the Deaf community.

In fact, there is a Deaf and Police Integrative Committee that meets every month, where we discuss about issues and concerns regarding to procedures. We make sure that the policies and procedures are updated and effective. In the past, the Committee and RPD worked together to develop a visor card for Deaf individuals to hand to officers, giving us the ability to easily inform police of our hearing loss (The visor cards are now to the public. If you or anyone you know needs one, please can contact me at the email address or phone number listed below. Currently, the Committee is developing a training workshop to educate cops on interactions with Deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

If you would like learn more about Police Integrative Committee or visor card, please contact me at jdollhopf@rcil.org or call at (585) 286-2725.