Aug 23, 2016 - News

The family of a deaf man who was shot and killed by police in Charlotte is calling for a change

Last Thursday, Daniel Harris was shot and killed by a N.C. Highway Patrol trooper in north Charlotte after failing to pull over for a speeding violation on I-485. Exactly why Harris failed to stop for police remains unclear. WSOCTV reports he was tailed for 6 miles before exiting the vehicle on Seven Oaks Drive where he was fatally shot. He was unarmed.

While specifics about the chase and subsequent shooting remain under investigation, what is known is that the 29-year-old father was deaf, a fact that is raising critical questions about how law enforcement and the Deaf community can best communicate safely and effectively.

The shooting took place on Seven Oaks Drive
The shooting took place on Seven Oaks Drive

Interactions between law enforcement and the Deaf community are complex.

People who are deaf can’t comply with verbal police orders they can’t hear. Police officers who don’t understand sign language might view an attempt to communicate with the hands as an act of defiance resisting arrest. Reaching inside one’s pocket for a card that reads “I am deaf” could be perceived as reaching for a gun. Handcuffs, especially behind the back, are used to restrain people, but they also silence those who speak with their hands.

Miscommunication between police officers and people who are deaf can be frustrating, dangerous and even life threatening. Although best practices for effective communication are outlined for both parties (see Deaf Rights – What to do when dealing with police and ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Officer – Communicating with People Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing), confusion persists.

The Harris family hopes to change the way officers interact with deaf drivers.

The family is calling for a change to DMV registration that would add a ‘DEAF’ notification to results for license plate searches, alerting officers in advance that they will be pulling over a driver who is deaf. This change, they say, would make Daniel a “hero in our Deaf community” if implemented.

They’ve set up a fundraising page to cover the cost of his cremation and funeral expenses. As of publishing, they had raised $8,000 of their $10,000 goal. The Harris family plans to use any extra money to set up a foundation in Daniel’s honor “to educate and provide law enforcement proper training on how to confront Deaf people.”

For officers, the ACLU says it is working with the Department of Justice to incorporate updated law enforcement training for interactions with individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Writer’s note: The Deaf community is diverse and those who are deaf may choose to refer to themselves in different ways. This story attempts to adhere to terminology most commonly accepted according to the National Association of the Deaf—”deaf” to refer to the audiological condition of not hearing and “Deaf” to refer to the group of deaf people who communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). Note that “mute” and “hearing loss/impairment” are not considered acceptable terminology when referring to the Deaf community.

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