How to interact safely with police if you have a hearing impairment
Being pulled over by police is an unnerving and uncomfortable experience for anyone, but these experiences can be downright terrifying for people who are deaf or have hearing loss. Often, simple (and avoidable) miscommunication between deaf people and police officers lead to devastating outcomes. In light of the recent shooting of a deaf man by a police officer in Charlotte, we decided it was important to share pertinent information on the rights of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community as well as some tips to use when interacting with police officers.
Daniel Kevin Harris
On August 18th, 2016, Daniel Kevin Harris – a 29-year-old deaf man with a speech impairment – was shot and killed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop in Charlotte, North Carolina. The exact details of the incident remain hazy as an investigation is still underway, however, here are the facts to date. Trooper Saunders, the police officer involved, reported signaling for Harris to pull over for speeding on the I-480 highway. After about seven miles, Harris got off the highway at Seven Oaks Drive. From there, the reports indicate, “Daniel Kevin Harris, got out of the vehicle, and that led to an encounter where a shot was fired” (wncn.com).
Harris was unarmed, and declared dead at the scene – only a few feet from his front door. It is unknown if the police officer knew about Harris’ hearing impairment at the time of the shooting.
Harris is described as loving and kind by neighbors and family members and leaves behind a 3-year-old son. His brother reports that Daniel was “really scared” of interactions with police officers because of his hearing impairment.
I’m deaf or hard-of-hearing. How should I interact with police?
Primarily, it is the duty of law enforcement agencies and police departments to ensure their troopers are properly trained on interacting with people with hearing impairment. In the meantime however, there are many steps you can take that involve just a little preparation and a bit of knowledge on your rights.
Be prepared: A very simple step that should be taken immediately is placing a sign on the inside of the sun visor on the drivers’ side that clearly states, “I am deaf or hard-of-hearing”. You can place a similar sign in your wallet to present to police if necessary. Also, know the universal sign for hearing loss – which is simply pointing to your ear.
If you are pulled over:
1. Remain calm, stay in the vehicle, pull the visor with the “deaf or hard of hearing” declaration so it is visible to an approaching officer.
2. Roll down with window, turn off the car, and place both hands on the steering wheel.
3. After making eye contact, gesture the universal sign for hearing loss.
4. If that doesn’t work, gesture your need for pen and paper to communicate.
5. Never touch an officer, if you need to get his or her attention, wave or vocalize if possible.
6. Make any and all requests for communication assistance in writing.
7. If you do not understand what is happening, do not continue to try to communicate until your requested assistance has arrived.
8. Know that you have the right to refuse a search of your body, car, home or belongings (although they can pat down the outside of your clothes if officers believe a weapon may be present).
If you are arrested:
1. Do not say you understand, or sign any documents if you do not understand and your attorney is not present.
2. Do not resist arrest. Many times, we try to communicate with officers, and because members of the deaf community use their hands to do so, this can sometimes be seen as resisting arrest – or even a threat. Remain calm, and wait until the cuffs are removed to attempt communication via signing.
3. If you want to request your right to remain silent, do so in writing.
4. When at the station, immediately inform the officers that you are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
5. Keep all notes or communication that you have used with police officers.
These suggestions are summarized from a video created by Academy award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who teamed up with ACLU and HEARD to help to inform people with hearing impairment of their rights when interacting with police officers.