San Diego, CA — Sadly, as multiple cases show, being deaf in America while interacting with police can lead to your arrest, assault, or even your death. A deaf, mute man in San Diego just learned this the hard way.
The man, whose name has not been released, was in a thrift shop attempting to sell some shoes when he noticed a traffic enforcement officer writing him a ticket for being illegally parked. Likely knowing that he couldn't afford a ticket, he ran outside to plead with the officer.
"He couldn't speak, so he was communicating via a legal pad we had. As he was writing something to ask us, he saw that he was going to get a ticket," said Tiara Arreloa, the employee at the shop in which the man was attempting to sell the shoes.
However, when he approached the traffic officer, things quickly escalated. As he attempted to communicate with the officer, she appeared to fail to understand him, according to witnesses.
"Maybe because he could not speak and he was trying to communicate so he was making some muddled noises," said Arreloa. "So maybe she thought he was intoxicated."
Whatever she thought, ended up with the officer pepper spraying the deaf man in the face. The man was in so much agony that people nearby began coming to his aid.
"There were customers going in and everyone was really frightened," Arreloa said. "It got so bad, the water wasn't helping, so we had to go to a restaurant and ask them for milk to neutralize the spice, the heat."
However, before anyone could help the man, two more San Diego police officers joined in on the escalation of force.
"Me and my co-workers were yelling he is deaf! He is deaf!" said Arreloa.
However, as the Free Thought Project has reported numerous times, many cops wrongly perceive deafness as a threat and then escalate to violence. The man was then tasered and thrown to the ground as officers pile on top of him.
"It ends up with three men on top of him," Arreloa said. "This poor man on the ground can't even communicate, but they are forcing him down on the ground over a parking ticket."
According to ABC 10,
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She says when paramedics arrived, they started communicating with him in sign language.
Police say a motorcycle officer sent out a call for back up and they confirm a taser was used, but what led to the confrontation is under review. The 35-year-old man, whose name hasn't been identified, is charged with battery on a police officer. The traffic officer says he slapped her arm.
Although the officer says he slapped her arm, Arreloa explained that he was simply trying to communicate in sign language and at no time did he ever try to hurt her.
"He wasn't touching her, his hands were just here. He was trying to talk to her, " insisted Arreloa.
"The police really need some serious training and they need to learn how to become aware of the deaf community," said Aline Smith, Director of Media and Community Education at Deaf Community Services of San Diego.
"They need to learn cultural norms of the deaf community and learn how to identify if a person is deaf or hearing," Smith said. "That way they know how to treat them when they are pulled over."
Smith said that a deaf person's facial expressions are often misinterpreted, especially if they are upset, like this man was.
"Doesn't mean I would become aggressive, but maybe my facial expressions, just like people who can hear and can speak, they have different vocal tone. The deaf community has the same thing in their facial expression, so my face might have been frustrated or upset," said Smith, noting that deaf people are especially afraid of cops.
"Deaf people are afraid of the police. If police are behind me with the siren, oh, it's extremely frightening for me," Smith said. "It's important that people take the time and are patient in order to assess what's really happening."
Smith's sentiment is held by many people within the deaf community. One of those people was Daniel Harris. Harris was afraid of police because they often had misunderstandings due to his deafness.
Sadly, almost one year ago to the day, Harris' fear of police would be realized as he was gunned down in front of his house by trooper Jermaine Saunders. Harris was unarmed and holding a carabiner key chain when Saunders killed him.
Earlier this year, Saunders was ruled justified in killing Harris.