Police Shootings: Oklahoma Cop Kills Deaf Man In Latest Attack On Disabled

Witnesses yelled, "He can't hear you!" as Magdiel Sanchez was fatally shot by an Oklahoma City police officer.

But the 35-year-old victim was deaf—and, in a manner of speaking, so was the officer.

Amid increasing attention to mental health issues, more than 2,700 police departments nationwide have incorporated crisis intervention training to nonviolently defuse situations with individuals in crisis. But the vast majority of such programs do not address the unique circumstances of the estimated 40 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

"If you think about it, these cops are trained to try and talk things out, but this man couldn't communicate with them, which in the officer's eyes makes it appear like a situation is escalating," said Justin Ramsdell, a professor at George Mason University who specializes in police tactics with the mentally ill. 

It's another reminder that police have become the de facto social workers in society, sometimes with disastrous results for the disabled: Anywhere from a third to half of those killed by police from 2013 to 2015 were disabled, according to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

The group, which helps those with disabilities and examined a number of high-profile deaths in the study, says, "Disability is the missing word in the media coverage of police violence."

The foundation also recommends adding more training for officers to deal with these individuals.

"When we leave disability out of the conversation or only consider it as an individual medical problem, we miss the way in which disability intersects with other factors that often lead to police violence," the study says. Focusing on disabilities could help lead to new solutions, it adds.

Earlier this year, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, located south of St. Louis, became the latest to undergo specialized training in interacting with the deaf community, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported

During the training, officers played out a number of scenarios. A critical lesson: when to call for an interpreter, which is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The department also updated its protocols. 

"Fear causes a lot of these issues," Captain Gary Higginbotham told the newspaper. "Fear on the part of the deaf person and fear on the part of the officer, especially if the nature of the conversation is complex." 

The Oklahoma City Police Department said it has officers trained in sign language, but it’s unclear if either of the officers involved in Sanchez’s death knew how to sign or called an interpreter. 

Police were called Tuesday evening to a hit and run accident. A witness told officers the vehicle went to a nearby address, said Captain Bo Mathews. 

When Lieutenant Matthew Lindsey pulled up, Sanchez was on the porch of the home. Sanchez had a 2-foot metal pipe with a leather loop to wrap around his hand, Mathews said. 

A neighbor told the Associated Press Sanchez carried a stick to ward off dogs when he took strolls around the neighborhood at night.

Lindsey called Sergeant Christopher Barnes for backup. The pair say they yelled "Drop the weapon" and "Get on the ground" but Sanchez didn’t reply. 

Mathews said witnesses repeatedly yelled, "He's deaf! He can’t hear you!" But the officers didn't hear them. 

Lindsey, with a Taser, and Barnes, with his gun, opened fire simultaneously. Sanchez was hit at least once and died at the scene.

Barnes is on paid leave while the shooting is being investigated. Neither officer had a body camera. 

Mathews said he didn't know why Barnes didn't use a Taser. 

"As far as what they were thinking, I can't tell you," Mathews said. "In those situations, very volatile situations, when you have a weapon out, you can get what they call tunnel vision or you can lock into just the person has the weapon and the threat against you."

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.

"The goal is recognize there’s a disability at play and be able to calm a situation," said Lauren Gleason, a spokeswoman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "With mental health or any disability, officers have to look for signs that aren't always obvious."

Indeed, neighbors won't always be screaming, "He can't hear you!"

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