There were two times in my life when I came within a trigger pull of being shot by the police. In both cases, I had not foreseen the lightning unfolding of events that left me exposed and at the mercy of officers. In those moments, the shock was such that there was a lag in my brain’s ability to comprehend what was taking place right in front of me. When my brain did catch up, I realized that the underlying cause for these misunderstandings was my deafness.
That is why when I read about the case of Brady Mistic, there was an eerie sense of déjà vu. A young and slender man with a buzz cut, Mistic ran a stop sign in the Colorado town of Idaho Springs where 1,800 people live. He continued on to his destination, a laundromat.
In a lawsuit recently filed against the officers and the town, Mistic’s lawyer wrote that as Mistic "exited his car and walked past a dumpster in between his vehicle and the police vehicle, toward the laundromat door, he was blinded by police vehicle lights. He had no idea what was happening, what the police were doing or if the officers' presence had anything to do with him." Mistic began to communicate in American Sign Language since he does not speak or lipread. Strangely, Officers Nicholas Hanning and Elle Summers did not register his signing. They grabbed him by his shirt and threw him to the ground, slamming his head against the concrete.
Despite this, Mistic possessed enough awareness to hold his hands out, palms facing Hanning, to show that he was unarmed. That is when Summers tased him. Mistic was handcuffed, taken to a hospital and then charged with assaulting the officers and resisting arrest. If that wasn’t enough, the town of Idaho Springs locked the man up in its jail for four months.
Even I cannot imagine what the ordeal must have been like. I was born profoundly deaf, but, unlike Mistic, I was raised oral and communicate by lipreading. Still, I know the immense frustration of not being able to communicate and what Mistic endured was the equivalent of solitary confinement or worse. Where was the common sense in that jail to realize that this clearly deaf man was not getting equal treatment?
When one reads the statements by the police, the treatment that Mistic received does not come as a surprise. The department defended the officers by stating that they did not know Mistic was deaf during the initial encounter. So they were entitled to behave in the abusive manner they did?
In many ways, the case of Mistic raises questions on how to police in an ever-diversifying society. If Mistic and I had been born in the 1930s or even the 1950s, the odds were that we would be living in an institution of sorts — out of sight and mind. Thankfully, our society has evolved to the point where we have unparalleled access to educational innovations and technological advances that improved the standards of living for many, especially for those with disabilities. My mother once marveled that no one in the 1970s — aside from the prescient few — ever thought I would be capable of becoming the independent man I am today.
I know there are those who will rush to argue that more diversity training is required to eliminate injustices like the one Mistic suffered. However, I am not convinced. In my two encounters with the police, they had no idea they were about to confront a deaf man.
In the first incident, I was staying with my parents during a break from my studies at Claremont McKenna College. I had been playing basketball at the local gym and the sweat caused my hearing aids to short out. I returned home and headed straight for the shower. When I got out of the shower the bathroom door began to shake violently. I thought it was my sister demanding to use the bathroom and I yelled, "Get lost!" The door rattled even more, angering me, and I yanked the door open to curse at my sister when I saw the barrel of the gun. My first thought was that my sister found one of my old realistic looking toy guns. I moved to slap the gun away when I saw the glint of the bathroom light on the officer’s badge. I looked up and I will never forget the "do I pull the trigger" look on his face. I swayed backward out of my aggressive stance. The still cautious officer then asked for my ID and asked why I had not disabled the blaring house alarm that had been set off when I came home. That’s when I exclaimed, "Oh, I’m deaf." At that moment, everything made sense for the officer. The relief on his face as he looked at his partner was palpable.
At that time, my family and I thought that pure luck had saved me from becoming a headline.
Then the second incident happened. Several years ago, I was riding with my friend, Morgan, though the south side of Chicago where he was picking up a rent check. He drove down an alley and parked his black SUV with tinted windows at a haphazard angle, the vehicle’s rear sticking out into the alley. He went up the stairs and disappeared into the home. I plugged in my phone to recharge while I read emails. I heard a strange electronic whooping sound and looked around. Minutes later, I heard the same whoop, and in my passenger’s side mirror I saw a grey, unmarked Ford Explorer SUV.
Immediately, I thought that our SUV was blocking the other SUV’s path and I flung open my door. I burst out, dressed in black from head to toe, with my hands up in the air in an apologetic gesture — I would move the SUV right away. That’s when I came within 10 feet of the officer screaming at me and I froze. I turned my head toward the grey SUV and saw two more officers staring dead straight into my eyes. My sole thought was, don’t move. The first officer continued to yell at me, growing increasingly agitated. Then he stopped and that pause allowed my brain to catch up to the situation. When the officer commanded that I sit down, I complied. Then I realized he did not know I was deaf. It took me several tries to find my voice, and when I did, I told him. The officer slumped out of his ready to fire position and placed his hands on his knees.
He eyed his two partners and they realized how close they came to shooting an innocent deaf person.
The first officer informed me that they ran the plates on the SUV and believed it to be stolen since it was from northwest Chicago and the south side was where many stolen vehicles ended up. They also learned that a gun was registered to my friend, the owner of the SUV. In their heads, they had created the story that the SUV had been stolen. When I did not respond to their siren whoops they thought I was planning a sinister action with the gun, which we later found in the middle console of the SUV.
When my mother heard this story all she could say was, "I hope there is not a third time." One thing that we knew was that it was not pure luck.
I believe the crucial difference between Mistic’s experience and mine was that I was fortunate enough to encounter decent and well-trained officers. They looked at my individual actions for hints of criminality and they made the use of force the very last resort. (As for the jailers who locked up Mistic for four months, they lacked the most basic of human dignities to know that something wrong or even immoral was going on.)
While I would never argue that officers should not seek to learn about the many human complexities within the population they swear to protect and serve, I know that no human being can account for all the possibilities, especially in situations of extreme stress. That is why, as more and more disabled people gain greater degrees of independence, hiring decent and talented people to protect and serve is a far greater guarantor of success. After all, when I asked the first officer in Chicago why he didn’t shoot, he said, "I was locked in on your hands and your eyes. You weren’t showing the behaviors I was expecting from a criminal." My deafness led me into an extremely precarious situation but the officer’s judgement of my individual actions — not immutable characteristics — is what allowed me to walk away. Sadly, Mistic did not receive the same treatment and may the lawsuit bring some form of justice.
Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is "What Killed Michael Brown?" Twitter: @Hebro_Steele