On April 6th, Lashonn White, a deaf woman, made a desperate call to the police from her home in Tacoma, Washington. With the help of her interpreter, White reached the 911 operator and said, “Please hurry! There’s a person here beating me up.”
Tacoma Police Officers Ryan Koskovich and Michael Young were told several times that White is deaf, yet they arrived on the scene without an interpreter or any necessary communication devices. When White rushed out to the balcony to meet the officers, she was immediately tasered in her ribs and stomach. A disoriented White had barely recovered from the taser’s shock before police arrested her for obstruction and assault of a civil servant.
White spent 60 hours in jail without an interpreter, which violates Washington law as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Sadly, White’s story is just one instance in a long list of incidents where law enforcement officials have violated the rights of people with disabilities.
- In June, Chicago police tasered a woman who was eight months pregnant for parking in a handicapped space. Police claimed they could not tell she was pregnant, although it was obvious to anyone who saw her.
- Last month, a mentally disabled man was executed by lethal injection in Georgia, despite a United States Supreme Court ruling making it illegal for mentally disabled inmates to be killed.
- Last September, a mentally ill homeless man was brutally beaten to death by two California police officers.
In a blog post, Charles A. Archer, CEO at Evelyn Doughlin Center for Serving People in Need writes, “inviting people with disabilities to participate in community events and becoming more involved in society” is the best way to enact policy. The ADA protects disabled persons’ rights on paper, but the question of policy vs. training comes to mind with so many police brutality cases leaving the voices of the disabled lost in translation.
Archer, among many others, argues, “starting an advisory group that includes, in the case of a police department, both officers and people with disabilities, to provide input on shaping policies and training” would give officers not just a law, but an understanding of communicating with disabled persons.
In the instance of Lashonn White’s arrest, officers claim that they did not merely yell stop at the deaf woman as she ran toward them. They put their hands up, palms facing outward to signal stop. Others at the scene recall that the officers did not signal for White to stop at all, which is why White, who could not hear the officers yelling “Stop!” kept hurrying toward the two policemen until one of them tasered her.
The ADA is often referred to as a “feel-good piece of legislation,” as it optimistically outlines the appropriate use of hand signals, interpreters, even the use of a pen and notepad to effectively communicate with deaf and people with disabilities. But police training and community integration are needed to actualize ADA policy. Needless deaths, injuries and discrepancies could be avoided if members of law enforcement were not just told how to communicate with disabled persons, but taught how to communicate and provide the basic rights outlined by federal law.
TAKE ACTION: Sign the petition demanding the Tacoma Police Department train their officers to communicate with people with disabilities in their community.
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