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Trooper-Involved Shooting Highlights Safety Concerns In Deaf Community

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There are more uncertainties than facts around the police shooting death of a deaf man in Charlotte. State Patrolman Jermaine Saunders attempted to stop 29-year-old Daniel Harris last Thursday for speeding. After what the state Highway Patrol says was a “brief pursuit,” Harris pulled over in what’s reported to be his neighborhood in northeast Charlotte.

There was an encounter but no details were released about that encounter. A shot was fired and Harris died at the scene.

This police shooting is bringing to light the many safety concerns that people in the deaf community have when it comes to interactions with law enforcement. WFAE's All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey spoke to WFAE's Sarah Delia who's been following this story. 

MARK RUMSEY: What are people in the deaf community telling you?

SARAH DELIA: I’ve spoken to people who are deaf, work with the deaf, or have family who are deaf and the overwhelming response is, yes, this is a fear and safety concern in the deaf community when it comes to interactions with the police for fear of a horrible misunderstanding/miscommunication.

I spoke with Ted Baron, he’s the chief of campus police at Gallaudet University which is a university for the deaf in Washington, DC. Daniel Harris actually went there, although he didn’t graduate there. Baron has deaf parents and is a police officer.

BARON: The deaf community, every time they are stopped or cross paths with a police officer, there’s a bit of nervousness on their side because they know communication will be an issue and they don’t know how it will end up. 

DELIA: He also said that there needs to be more training for police to be better exposed to deaf people because it’s such a unique experience, for example, it may not be immediately apparent to them that someone is deaf because it’s not physically apparent. He does point out that because interacting with the deaf is not an everyday occurrence for many, there is some responsibility on that deaf person. 

BARON: The deaf person usually and should take the initiative to notify the officer that they are deaf. It’s usually a gesture to their ear and they shake their head no. There are agencies and states that pass out cards called visor cards. A lot of deaf people do carry these visor cards. They say 'I am deaf. I communicate through sign language. I cannot read lips.' From there it’s on the police officer on how they are going to communicate with the deaf person. 

RUMSEY: How are police trained to interact with the deaf?

DELIA: State Highway Patrol officials say all certified law enforcement in North Carolina which would include CMPD and state troopers receive a specialized training on how to recognize clues to alert an office that a person may be deaf. And in the Highway Patrol policy manual there's actually a section that details how to arrest a deaf person. 

RUMSEY: Is there any indication to an officer that a person they are pulling over is deaf or hard of hearing?

DELIA: North Carolina DMV official say unless a deaf driver orders a specialty plate to identify him or her as such, there is no existing plate, placard, or decal identifying them as deaf. And currently, there are no alerts to law enforcement identifying deaf drivers when they look up a plate.

RUMSEY: Is there a call for some kind of indication on cars or plates that the driver is deaf so police know before they approach someone they’ve pulled over?

DELIA: Actually, in the deaf community this is a really sensitive subject and one I'm learning more about as this is new territory for me. But the people that I talked to in the deaf community feel that  putting something that signals they are deaf on their car would make them more vulnerable. Dr. Stephanie Logan is the executive director of LEAD Institute, LEAD stands for Leadership through Education and Advocacy for the Deaf. She said where she lives in Missouri, there’s been debate over it. [Note: Logan is deaf, she lost her hearing in her early 20's. This is her voice in this recording]. 

LOGAN: I would never drive a vehicle that had a notation on my vehicle that I was deaf. I would never have it as a sticker which was a discussion years ago.  Years ago, we also discussed having a signal on a license tag and I would never drive a car that had notation.

DELIA: It comes down to safety she says. It lets the whole world know you can’t hear and that could lead to other problems.

RUMSEY: Where do we go from here in the death of Daniel Harris?

DELIA: Well, shortly after the shooting the State Highway Patrol requested that the State Bureau of Investigation investigate the incident. So the SBI is conducting interviews they were finally able to interview Trooper Saunders this week so they are collecting data but they have to wait for the autopsy report which could take months.  This is a criminal investigation and their findings go to the district attorney who decides what to do. The SBI is an independent agency  and the district attorney will decide if criminal charges will be made against the trooper. And in the mean time, we hope to learn more about the training and policies in place from CMPD and the highway patrol on how they are instructed to interact with the deaf and if that will change going forward.