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Colorado case shows police not trained to interact with deaf community

For deaf advocates, the case of a Colorado man who was jailed for resisting police orders he could not hear is another example of law enforcement failure to serve. and to properly protect a member of their community.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted three decades ago, law enforcement agencies are required to “provide effective communication.” But most police departments offer officers little or no training on how to interact with deaf people and fewer officers even know rudimentary sign language, advocates said.

“For the most part, the police services have not made any changes to address these systematic problems,” said Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, which is the oldest deaf civil rights group in the country. country. “Typically, police departments only implement training programs to educate their officers after a tragedy occurs to a deaf or hard of hearing person who has been abused by a police officer due to a lack of understanding and communication problems.

The latest example of this apparent lack of communication concerns Brady Mistic, 26, a deaf man from Colorado who relies on sign language and says two Idaho Springs cops pinned him to the ground two years ago. during an arrest despite his attempts to tell them he couldn’t understand their commands.

Brady Mistic.Courtesy of Raymond Bryant

On top of that, Mistic says, he was wrongfully jailed for four months and is now suing officers, as well as the city of Idaho Springs and the Clear Creek County Board of Commissioners. The second-degree assault on a police officer and resistance to arrest charges against Mistic were subsequently dismissed, according to the prosecution.

When NBC News asked if officers involved in the September 17, 2019 incident had been trained to deal with deaf suspects, Idaho Springs Police Chief Nathan Buseck issued a press release with their version of the meeting with Mistic.

He says that the fact that Mistic is deaf was “not known to the officers at the initial meeting” and they overpowered him “to take control of Mr. Mistic by handcuffs him due to his unexplained actions” .

Mistic’s attorney, Raymond Bryant, said he suspected agents had no training to interact with someone like his client.

“At this point, we cannot speak with any details of the departmental training on ADA issues,” Bryant said in an email. “We hope to learn more in the context of litigation. But when we asked for departmental policies in Idaho Springs PD, we were only provided with a recent policy enacted in 2021. This leads me to believe that the department did not have enough policies in place in 2019 and therefore , probably had no training in place either.

This apparent lack of training does not surprise Maria Haberfeld, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and police expert.

“There are over 18,000 police departments in the United States and their training differs tremendously,” said Haberfeld, author of “Use of Force Training in Law Enforcement: A Reality Based Approach. “” I know very few departments that really integrate such training. . “

Why?

“It is definitely a question of resources,” she said. “The training is very expensive and the specialized training receives very few allowances in general, usually as a result of a high profile case. “

Rosenblum agreed. And the little training officers receive doesn’t seem to change the mindset of the police, he said.

Howard A. Roseblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.NAD

“The holistic approach of police officers in most situations is generally to perceive something other than full and immediate compliance with verbal instructions or commands as intentional disobedience,” he wrote. “Such approaches from police across the country are not conducive to resolving communication issues with people who are deaf and hard of hearing.”

Few police departments have hired police officers who know sign language, Rosenblum said. And because of the pandemic, masks have become another communication barrier between police and deaf people.

“Even if the deaf person realizes that the policeman is trying to communicate, a person who relies on lip reading has no option because the mask covers the face of the policeman,” he said.

Up to 9% of the American population suffers from some level of hearing loss, but under the ADA, “people who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to the same services law enforcement provides to anyone.” according to the Ministry of Justice.

“They cannot be excluded or separated from services, denied services or treated differently from others,” the Justice Department said. “Law enforcement agencies need to make efforts to ensure that their staff communicate effectively with people whose hearing disabilities affect their hearing. This applies to both sworn and civilian personnel.

But the federal government leaves it up to local law enforcement to determine how to comply with the law.

Two years ago, Angel Familia became the first officer hired by the New York City Police Department whose first language was American Sign Language. Although he can hear, both of his parents are deaf and his hiring has been touted by the NYPD as an attempt to bridge the gap between the police and this underserved community.

And in 2017, the NYPD launched a pilot program in three districts that paired agents with sign language interpreters.

These efforts, however, are the exception, not the rule, Rosenblum said.

There also does not seem to be a database to track how often encounters between police and deaf people go wrong. But in recent years, there have been several clashes between the police and deaf people that have turned fatal – and made headlines.

In 2017, a 35-year-old deaf Oklahoma City man named Magdiel Sanchez was gunned down by police as his neighbors frantically shouted that he couldn’t hear their orders to drop the pipe he was carrying. .

A year earlier, a North Carolina state soldier shot dead a 29-year-old deaf man named Daniel Harris after an attempted traffic stop.