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  • Matthew Sokol

Police accountability under the ADA: Why deaf civilians fear interaction with law enforcement

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Editor's Note: This article contains detailed recounts of police brutality and violence against disabled persons and persons of color.

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, protests erupted in cities across the United States with the goal of reforming American policing. One such protest occurred on the evening of May 31, 2020 outside the Austin Police Department in Austin, Texas. Police gave verbal orders to a group of protesters to clear a particular area. Tyree Talley did not leave after the police issued verbal warnings, which led to officers shooting him with rubber bullets. After falling to the ground, “Talley was shot [ten] more times with rubber bullets.” Police justified the use of rubber bullets because they believed Talley was disobeying orders from the officers. However, Talley never heard the warnings because he is deaf.

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), government officials must take reasonable and appropriate steps to provide access to information and services to disabled people. Because police departments are an arm of the government, Title II applies to their operations and their officers. Section 35.130(b)(7)(i) requires “public entities to make reasonable modifications to practices and procedures when the modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability.” In this context, that means police officers are required to take reasonable steps to communicate with deaf civilians. The Austin police officers operated under the assumption that Tyree Talley was able to hear their communications and responded to the situation based on that assumption. They did not modify their procedures or practices to account for deaf civilians and Talley suffered the consequences of their assumption.

Talley, who identifies as a deaf black man, is suing the City of Austin, claiming the unidentified officer(s) who shot him violated the ADA by failing to take reasonable steps to communicate with him. Unfortunately, Talley’s case is one in a long history of incidents where police’s failure to acknowledge the existence of deaf civilians resulted in an abuse of force.

In September 2017, Magdiel Sanchez was shot and killed by Oklahoma City police after he did not respond to verbal orders to drop a short metal pipe he used to help communicate, despite onlookers yelling to the officers that Sanchez was deaf and could not hear them. In January 2014, Pearl Pearson was pulled from his car and assaulted by officers because he did not comply with their verbal orders. Pearson was attempting to show the patrolmen a placard that said he was deaf, but the officers did not let him do so. In February 2013, Jonathan Meister was carrying some belongings home from a friend’s house when officers mistook him for a burglar. The officers mistook his use of sign language for acts of aggression and beat, tased, and choked him until he was unconscious. Lastly, in 2012, Robert Kim pulled to the side of the road to fix a flat tire when he experienced acute symptoms of his diabetes. He sat down on the grass, and when officers arrived, he tried to inform them that he was deaf, that he had trouble speaking and that he was in diabetic shock. The officers, instead of attempting to get Kim medical attention, beat and tased him for failing to comply with verbal orders.

These are but a handful of similar cases that occurred over the last decade. These cases all have one factor in common: the police assumed the people they were interacting with could hear, resulting in use of excessive force. The excessive use of force could have been avoided had the officers fulfilled their legal obligations under the ADA to find alternate means to communicate with deaf civilians. Up until now, officers have not been held accountable for violating the ADA or for the excessive force that results from the ADA violations. In fact, in the Pearson case, the district attorney declined to press charges against the officers that assaulted him, but on the same day charged Pearson with resisting arrest.

These tragic stories all speak to why the Austin protest, and all the protests following the killing of George Floyd, were so important—even when laws exist to hold officers of the law accountable, those in positions of authority fail to hold those who abuse their power accountable. This lack of accountability has led to calls from disabled activists of color to reduce police interaction with the disabled community as much as possible. It would likely take substantive changes to the way law enforcement interacts with the deaf community for trust to be rebuilt, if that happens at all.

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