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Colorado case shows police aren't trained to interact with the deaf community

"Typically, police departments implement training programs to educate their officers only after a tragedy happens," an advocate for the deaf says.

For advocates of the deaf, the case of a Colorado man who was jailed for resisting police orders he could not hear is yet another example of law enforcement failing to properly serve and protect a member of their community.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law three decades ago, law enforcement agencies are required to “provide effective communication.” But most police departments offer officers little, if any, training on how to interact with people who are deaf and fewer officers know even rudimentary sign language, the advocates said.

“For the most part, police departments have not made any changes to address these systematic problems,” said Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, which is the nation’s oldest civil rights group for the deaf. “Typically, police departments implement training programs to educate their officers only after a tragedy happens to a deaf or hard-of-hearing person who has been mistreated by a police officer due to a lack of understanding and miscommunications.”

The latest example of this apparent failure to communicate involves Brady Mistic, 26, a deaf Colorado man who relies on sign language and says two Idaho Springs police officers slammed him to the ground two years ago during an arrest despite his attempts to tell them that he could not understand their commands.

Brady Mistic.Courtesy Raymond Bryant

On top of that, Mistic says, he was wrongfully jailed for four months and is now suing the officers, as well as the city of Idaho Springs and the Clear Creek County Board of Commissioners. The second-degree assault on a police officer and resisting arrest charges lodged against Mistic were later dismissed, the suit says.

When NBC News asked whether the officers involved in the Sept. 17, 2019, incident had been trained to deal with deaf suspects, Idaho Springs Police Chief Nathan Buseck forwarded a press release with their version of the encounter with Mistic.

It says the fact that Mistic is deaf was “not known to the officers during the initial encounter” and they subdued him “to gain control of Mr. Mistic by placing him into handcuffs due to his unexplained actions.”

Mistic’s lawyer, Raymond Bryant, said he suspects the officers had no training to interact with somebody like his client.

“At this point, we cannot speak with any detail about departmental training on ADA issues,” Bryant said in an email. “We expect to learn more in litigation. But when we requested the departmental policies from Idaho Springs PD, we were provided only a recent policy enacted in 2021. This leads me to believe the department did not have sufficient policies in place in 2019 and, as a result, did not likely have adequate training in place either.”

That apparent lack of training does not surprise Maria Haberfeld, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and an expert of policing.

“There are over 18,000 police departments in the U.S. and their training differs tremendously,” said Haberfeld, the author of “Use of Force Training in Law Enforcement: A Reality Based Approach." “I know of very few departments that actually incorporate such training.”

Why?

“It is definitely a matter of resources,” she said. “Training is very costly, and specialized training gets very little allocation in general, usually in the aftermath of a high-profile case.”

Rosenblum agreed. And what little training the officers get doesn’t appear to change the police mindset, he said.

Howard A. Roseblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.NAD

“The overall approach of police officers to most situations generally is to perceive anything other than full and immediate compliance with verbal instructions or commands as intentional noncompliance,” he wrote. “Such approaches by police officers across the country are not conducive to resolving communication issues with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.”

Few police departments have hired police officers who know sign language, Rosenblum said. And because of the pandemic, masks have become another communication barrier between police officers and deaf people.

"Even if the deaf person becomes aware that the officer is attempting communication, a person who relies on lip-reading is left with no options because the mask covers the police officer's face," he said.

Up to 9 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some level of hearing loss, but under the ADA “people who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to the same services law enforcement provides to anyone else,” according to the Justice Department.

“They may not be excluded or segregated from services, be denied services, or otherwise be treated differently than other people,” the Justice Department said. “Law enforcement agencies must make efforts to ensure that their personnel communicate effectively with people whose disability affects hearing. This applies to both sworn and civilian personnel.”

But the federal government leaves it up to local law enforcement to figure out how to follow the law.

Two years ago, Angel Familia became the first officer hired by the New York City Police Department whose first language was American Sign Language. Although he can hear, both his parents are deaf and his hiring was touted by the NYPD as an attempt to bridge the gap between police and this underserved community.

And in 2017, the NYPD launched a pilot program in three precincts which paired officers with sign language interpreters.

These efforts, however, are the exception, not the rule, Rosenblum said.

There also does not appear to be a database that tracks how often encounters between police officers and deaf people go bad. But in recent years, there have been several confrontations between police and deaf people that have turned deadly — and have made headlines.

In 2017, a deaf 35-year-old Oklahoma City man named Magdiel Sanchez was fatally shot by police as his neighbors frantically yelled that he couldn’t hear their orders to drop the pipe he was carrying.

A year earlier, a North Carolina state trooper shot and killed a 29-year-old deaf man named Daniel Harris after an attempted traffic stop.