Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday December 12th 2018

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Fighting To Be Heard

The Deaf and the Law
By Rick Outzen

The tables in the large room at the Center for Independent Living formed a rectangle. Several deaf people and their advocates sat, waiting to share their stories. A certified sign language interpreter was in the center of the formation to translate their unspoken words and ask the reporter’s questions.

Pensacola Councilwoman Sherri Myers, an advocacy outreach coordinator at the center, facilitated the two-hour discussion. “We asked you to come and listen to the problems we’ve had with law enforcement when they stop people who are deaf,” she said, “and how deaf people are not getting services they’re required to have under the law when they’re incarcerated and in the court system.”

Myers has a long history of civil rights work. For nearly 50 years, the attorney has fought for those that society shuns and ignores—the poor, homeless and disabled.

The Center for Independent Living Disability Resource Center, where she works, is a nonprofit agency that is designed and operated by individuals with disabilities and provides an array of independent living services. Its goal is to secure for all people with disabilities the opportunity to choose and realize their goals of where and how they live, learn, work and play.

The deaf people in room asked their real names not be used. Inweekly honored that request.

Trying to be understood
Ned was arrested for battery against his girlfriend and her daughter and for battery on an officer. He is completely deaf and couldn’t get across to the officers what was happening.

“I had been given two types of medication by my doctor and was having an adverse reaction,” he said. “The officers arrived at the home, and I couldn’t communicate with them and requested an interpreter.”

His girlfriend, Karen, is also deaf. She knew about the medications and was concerned that he wasn’t acting right.  Myers explained, “Karen was wanting him to be helped, maybe Baker Act him. She wanted to get that across to the police officers. Because of the lack of communication, the officers had no idea what was going on.”

Ned said, “The officers did not try to communicate with Karen. They did not try to get an interpreter when I asked for one. The officer grabbed her daughter, age 17, and asked her to interpret.”

Karen became very upset. “The officers looked at me like ‘You’re deaf’ and ignored me,” she said. “My daughter’s not a certified interpreter, she has limited signing skills, she’s not that qualified to interpret. They put my daughter in harm’s way.”

Ned added, “I was trying to sign and her daughter was trying to tell them what I was saying but they didn’t understand. I was requesting for a certified interpreter and they were speaking and I didn’t understand what she was trying to sign.”

Myers explained when a deaf person signs, their motions may appear violent. Just how some people raise their voices when they want to make a point, a deaf person’s signing comes more demonstrative. They may appear to be combative.

“I didn’t understand what they wanted,” Ned said. “I didn’t know if I should turn around, get on my knees, put my hands on my head, put my hands behind, or what movement am I supposed to do. I didn’t want to make wrong movements or I was probably going to get shot.”

According to Ned and Karen, the officers mistook his signing for threatening the teen and them. They thought he was resisting arrest because he didn’t follow their commands.

“I was also confused and then I saw all these officers jump on him and they beat him up. I kept thinking, why is this happening?” Karen said.

“I felt this is not right,” she said. “The officers saw him and they immediately charged him because of his muscular build. They didn’t know deaf people need to have a big signing space. The way he signs, his arms are out and that’s part of our body language and expressions that are used to go with our signs. Many people don’t understand that.”

Ned was taken to a hospital, bleeding from his nose and mouth. He was restrained on a bed with one arm over his head, the other down by his body.  It left him unable to communicate with the medical staff.

He said, “They were trying to talk to me. I tried to make motions that I was deaf.”

It wasn’t until Jonnie Caraway, a sign language interpreter, arrived that he was able to communicate.

“She came in and started interpreting and she saw what was going on, I couldn’t sign,” Ned said. “She told them to remove the restraints so that I could communicate.”

Myers provided a copy of the arrest report. “The reason the arrest report is important is because it shows that his rights were violated. Because the officers knew he was deaf and still they say in the report he would not respond to verbal commands.”

The report stated that officers thought Ned understood what they were saying because he “started shaking his head and backing up toward the kitchen.” The deputies repeatedly ordered him to come toward them, but according to the report, he refused and continued toward the kitchen. When they punched and tried to subdue him, the report said that Ned “continued to resist, ignoring several verbal commands.”

Myers said the deputies knew he was deaf. Yet they became upset when he would not respond to their verbal commends—words that Ned could not hear or understand. The incident could have been avoided had the deputies used a sign interpreter, according to Myers.

Cab Fare Disaster
Dr. John Veasley, past president of the Pensacola branch of the NAACP, told the story of a deaf woman that he and Myers had helped. The woman lives in Century and works in Pensacola. She usually uses community transportation services for the commute, which costs about $7.50 each trip.

One evening, community transportation services couldn’t give her a ride home. She took a cab instead. When he pulled up to her house, the cab driver wanted $25 for the trip, which was more than she had in her purse.

“She had the cab driver wait while she went inside the house to get the money from her mother, but she did not have the money either so she asked the cab driver to take her to the mother’s sister house about two miles down the road,” Veasley said.

The aunt gave $100 to the cab driver, who took the money and drove off without giving her any change. While driving to the aunt’s house, the cab driver called in to the dispatch that he had a nonpayer—something the young woman could not hear.

Dispatch contacted the sheriff’s office. The cab driver did not notify dispatch later that he had been paid.

“When the officers got there, she was trying to sign. They could not understand so they arrested her,” Veasley said. “When they took her to jail, she still didn’t have an interpreter.”

The public defender wanted the woman to agree to pre-trial intervention, which required that she enter a guilty plea to the theft. “John and I felt like she did not understand what was going on and we knew she wasn’t guilty,” Myers said.

They explained the situation to her and advised her not to plead guilty. Myers said, “When she went into the court room, the prosecutor who then had all the facts before him said, ‘She’s not guilty of anything.’ He dropped the charges.”

She said, “Had we not been there, the woman would now have a criminal record.”

Language Barrier
Communication with a deaf person isn’t as simple as handing him or her a pen and paper. The deaf advocates explained the deaf have difficulties comprehending some written words.

Myers said, “That’s one reason written communication is not the most effective form of communication for people who are deaf.”

The sign interpreter took a break and added, “Deaf people don’t read that well. A lot of them probably don’t get maybe 20 percent of what they’re reading.”

He said the deaf don’t necessarily fully understand their Miranda Rights when they read them.

He said, “The card is written in English. In America, sign language and English are not equivalent. The America sign language has its grassroots coming from the French sign language, the grammatical structure is vastly different. Those who sign English may have a little more comprehension.”

A deaf person might misunderstand the Miranda Rights when an officer gives him the card to read.  He said, “When you try and use this card, you give it to a deaf person who communicates in America sign language, especially if it’s old America sign language, you have certain phrases like ‘you have the right to have an attorney appointed.’ Well the word ‘appointment’ is really going to throw them off.”

He said the word “right” has several meanings that a deaf person might not comprehend. “In their language, R-I-G-H-T could mean you’re right. OK, so they’re looking at the card that says, ‘You have the right, you are right.’ They’re thinking, ‘Oh, okay, this is letting me know I’m right, something about I can get an attorney, something about a lawyer.’ There’s a lot of confusion just in that card. By using the card officers are not mirandizing a deaf person.”

Ned said he did understand how some may confuse his signs for something more ominous. “Deaf people, they sign like this (waving his arms) when they try to get each other’s attention,” he said. “I’m very exuberant when I sign and I’m loud when I sign.”

He admitted that he doesn’t realize when he is being “loud” because he’s excited, upset or something is very serious. He said, “The officers give me this odd look. They think that I’m crazy. They don’t understand that the deaf culture and their way.”

Traffic Stop Nightmare
Beth was out with her hearing friends. On her way home, her purse fell off the seat and she swerved the car and hit the curb when she went to grab it. Officers pulled her over.

“They thought I was just playing with them, being silly,” she said. “I tried to explain to them that I’m deaf, but because I have some speech they just thought I was just silly or weird.

Pointing toward Myers, Beth said, “Well she’s right, our speech isn’t perfect. When there are two words that are very similar, it’s hard to tell the difference when you’re trying to read lips, too.”

The officers gave Beth a field sobriety test. “I couldn’t see what he wanted me to do. When you’re deaf and they’re trying to give verbal orders that you can’t hear, they had to be right in front of me for me to understand what they were saying.”

She was afraid.  She was not given an interpreter at the scene or in the jail. The officers did eventually let her use a TDD, a telecommunications device for the deaf for text communication over a telephone line, to contact her father, who bonded her out of the jail.

The judge ordered Beth to take a class as part of her sentence. The company offering the class would not provide an interpreter. The judge eventually dropped the requirement.

No Access to Classes
Jonnie Caraway, who also consults with Deaf and Hard Hearing Services in Pensacola, said, “We had a situation similar to that, a deaf client needed to take a parenting class as a part of his divorce. When he contacted the private companies, the private companies just said they would not provide an interpreter.”

The client had to take the class through Pensacola State College that does provide interpreters. She said, “He couldn’t go to the one he wanted to go to, which was more convenient for him, because they wouldn’t provide the interpreter.”

Sherri Myers said that most classes assigned by the criminal justice system don’t have sign interpreters. “In jail, you can attended anger management, substance abuse and other classes that will let you earn time off your sentence,” she said. “The deaf cannot do it because the classes don’t have interpreters.”

Ned said while he was in the county jail that he requested anger management and parenting classes. “They told me that I was in special housing and I couldn’t attend because of where I was locked up.”

He said, “Deaf people can’t avail themselves of classes that would earn 10 days off for their sentence. Hearing people are allowed to do that and get gain time but a deaf person isn’t allowed that. We have to suffer even more. Deaf people should be able to take any of those to better themselves just as a hearing person can do.”

The deaf people also felt they are disrespected when they witness an accident or crime.

A woman hit Ann’s car.  Being deaf she needed an interpreter to explain to the Florida Highway Patrol what happened.

“The officer arrived and I tried to explain to him what had happened,” Ann said, “Then the woman who hit my car started speaking to him and he agreed with her.”

Ann was able to get an interpreter to come to the accident scene, but the officer wouldn’t listen. She said about the officer, “He got an attitude with me. He took her side of the story, did not even listen to me and then gave me a ticket. He didn’t even communicate with me and hear my side of the story and was very rude. “

John Shiver, a deaf advocate for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, asked that Inweekly readers try an experiment to understand what it is like to not be able to hear.

“How would you feel if you had like ear muffs on and you couldn’t hear? Try that,” he said. “You can’t hear anything, you can’t communicate. Now you will know what it is like to be deaf 24-hours a day. It will make a big difference in how you see things.”

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Interview with Chief Deputy Haines

Inweekly asked Chief Deputy Eric Haines of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office about how his deputies are instructed to handle deaf people when they are involved in an incident.

Haines said that the deputies initially treat them the same as they would anyone else, but upon recognition of the person being deaf, things change.

“If it’s a critical situation where they’re a threat to the officer, there’s not a whole lot going through the officer’s mind at that point as to why they’re not following instructions. Those have a propensity to end in tragedy if it gets taken to the extreme.”

The level of crime impacts the encounter. Haines said, “If it’s a minor crime, once they’re hand-cuffed, and you understand they’re deaf, you can tone things down because they’re no longer a threat to the officer. The worst case scenario is when they would be deaf and as a threat to the officer, and there’s no time for an attempt at communication.”

He said, “I’m not really considering, ‘Do they speak English? Are they deaf?’—all these other things. I’m worried about self-protection right then as an officer.”

If the victim is deaf, the deputy has normally the time and resources available to get a deaf interpreter to the scene. He said, “A lot of the deaf people, specifically in my encounters, have had good support networks where someone that they lived with, or a neighbor, or a relative comes and helps them to interpret when it’s time to do a report of a crime or they need help with something.”

The sheriff’s office has one volunteer for sign language. If that person is unavailable, the agency contacts EMS, who has a separate list of sign language interpreters.

Haines said, “I’ve never had to call an interpreter out for the deaf because normally they can read and write. I’ve sat there and just wrote on my pad conversations back and forth. I’ve let them read the Miranda card, if they know how to read. Those are all things that get argued in court later, but we’re worried about basic communication at the time of these incidents.”

The sheriff’s office does not track deafness in its reporting system so Haines could not tell Inweekly how many deaf people have been arrested in recent years.

“We don’t have a specific flag for the deaf,” he said. “If there’s something in the report that would identify that person, like we needed an interpreter, we could check that special needs box, but that’s not mandatory.”

Haines said that deputies usually go above and beyond when they encounter a special needs person. “Most of them get into this job because they’re good people and want to help people,” he said. “I would be surprised that they would treat a deaf person rudely or something else like that. That is something that Sheriff Morgan would not take kindly to if our deputies were not sympathetic when they had the opportunity to be to a special needs person.”

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Interview with Public Defender Bruce Miller

Bruce Miller, the Public Defender for the First Judicial Circuit, said that his agency treats deaf similar to how it handles clients that speak a foreign language.

He said, “We have two or three certified sign interpreters that we use for office interviews.”

Miller had no statistics on how many deaf people they have served, but the public defender’s office currently has two deaf clients in Santa Rosa County.

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Answers from Escambia County

Inweekly submitted several questions to the Escambia County Public Information Office about how deaf prisoners are treated in the Escambia County Jail.

Kathleen Dough-Castro, the county’s Public Information manager, said that deaf persons are kept in special housing in the jail.  She said, “They are placed in special housing unit, which is primarily because it is close to the video relay system that replaced the old TTY machines. It’s not segregated or anything like that.”

Some of the deaf people that Inweekly interviewed said that they were not given their arrest reports and didn’t understand what were the charges against them. Dough-Castro said, “All inmates should be given a copy of their arrest report, unless they bond out, without regard to any sort of physical issues.”

She said that the jail has no certified sign interpreters. “We do have some medical staff and some staff that may have some knowledge of it, but nobody who’s certified,” she said. “We do have 24-hour access to sign language through the video relay system.”

The county jail currently has one deaf inmate. She said, “We’ve been told by his family that he can read lips. He has hearing aids, which at some point, were taken away from him but now he has them.”

She said it was Sherri Myers who contacted County Administrator Jack Brown about the hearing aids. The jail staff quickly rectified the situation.

When asked about how often the jail has deaf prisoners, Dough-Castro said, “They’re telling me it’s not a common issue, but we do have someone with us right now who is deaf.”