Don’t Shoot Me

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When I read of Sammy Thompson’s shooting in Arkansas (,0,2892033,print.story), I thought, “Not another one!” I think that every time I learn of another deaf person being shot by police.

10 years ago, I was a graduate student sitting at my computer when I turned my head to watch the 10:00 news. The captions said, “Smith, who was deaf, was shot….” I sat forward, trying to figure out which Smith they were referring to. After a few minutes, I learned it was Eric Smith from Joliet.

Eric and I grew up together, although we went to different schools, and spent summers together at camp. Although I won’t go into too much about the circumstances of his death – which was found to be justified – he was shot at least five times by volunteer police officers after an argument with his mother along I-55 in the Chicago area.

Less than a month later, another deaf man in downstate Illinois, Stephen Helmig, was killed by state police in a case of mistaken identity. This time, the shooting was not justified. The shootings, of course, set off a fury in the Deaf community. The state police took steps to remedy the tarnished community relations by establishing a committee and developing a communication book that is used in state police vehicles. They also started providing a course at the Illinois State Police Academy.

The sad thing is that deaf people being shot by police isn’t rare. Remember Errol Shaw in Detroit, Mich.? In the summer of 2000, police came to Shaw’s parents’ home to respond to a report that Shaw was chasing someone with a butcher knife. Upon arrival, they found Shaw calmly holding a garden rake. When he didn’t put down the rake at police’s orders, Officer David Krupinski shot and killed him, even though relatives at the scene screamed that Shaw couldn’t hear the officers’ instructions. The case, sensationalized by Court TV, ended with the officer being found innocent.

And then there’s Maine’s James Levier, shot by police in April 2001. Devastated by childhood sexual abuse at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf and despondent, Levier paced with a rifle outside of a grocery store with 200 shoppers at the back of the store. The police claimed Levier shot first, but witnesses continue to dispute this fact. Either way, police shot at Levier five times, killing him. An interpreter was there; however, Levier’s niece said that the interpreter was so far away that she could not understand what Levier was signing, even through binoculars.

With Sammy Thompson, he was apparently also shot during a standoff where he was given “hand signals” to lower his rifle. He aimed his gun at the deputy, which is when he was shot. It’s not clear from news reports if a qualified interpreter was present.

In each of these cases, and every other case involving police shooting deaf people, there’s a common thread: communication barriers. In Smith and Shaw’s situations, no interpreters were provided, and none of the police officers heeded relatives’ screams that the man was deaf. With Helmig, the police officer, responding to a claim of attempted robbery, claimed Helming verbally spoke, “I’m gonna kill you.” My stepfather, who knew Helmig personally, laughed at this; he said Helmig couldn’t speak at all even if he tried. In Levier’s situation, the interpreter was too far away to clearly communicate with him.

I’ve learned, from working with police, that for them, safety is always a priority over communication. They also say that people should always succumb to police, especially uniformed officers, in emergencies. They are trained to save lives, and we should never toy with this. Communication can always be resolved later, as long as safety is in place. As a Deaf person, that is a bit difficult for me to swallow, because in order to be safe, I have to know what’s happening – which comes with communication. But that is how police prioritize, and I respect that.

Whether they’re hearing or deaf, sometimes people go to extreme measures to draw attention to their problems. I’m not saying this is okay; it’s absolutely unacceptable to bring guns into a situation. Levier and Thompson shouldn’t have done what they did, of course. Still, I wonder how many police shootings of deaf people could have been avoided had qualified interpreters been accessible immediately. I don’t know if an interpreter’s presence would have resolved each of these situations, but it would certainly have helped.

The worst part is that this is going to happen time after time. Police and deaf people are always going to have communication problems no matter how much training and awareness we provide. I only pray that I’m never in a situation where police kill me because I didn’t hear their instructions.

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