HAWTHORNE, Calif. – An architect is suing a southern California police department after officers placed him in handcuffs, beat him and shocked him with a stun gun – all because they mistook his sign language for threatening gestures, he says.
Jonathan Meister, who is deaf and does not speak, was stopped by officers last February as he was retrieving some belongings he had stored on an ex-roommate's porch, according to CBS Los Angeles.
Someone saw Meister taking the items, thought the situation looked suspicious and called police, the station reports.
Officers met Meister on the sidewalk, where he "tried to tell them that he was deaf, using gestures to explain that he was there to pick up his stuff, but it didn’t seem like they understood," Meister’s attorney Anna Rivera said told CBS Los Angeles.
Officers said he began to struggle when they handcuffed him.
"If the primary way you communicate is to use your hands, and you’re looking at somebody when you speak, when you go to grab somebody without explaining what’s happening and take that method of communication away from them, Mr. Meister became afraid," Rivera told the station.
Meister was initially charged with assaulting officers but the charges were later dropped.
He filed his case Wednesday with the Disability Rights Legal Center, suing for compensatory, statutory and punitive damages.
"It’s a civil rights case about officers discriminating against someone just because they have a disability, and that they don’t recognize someone is deaf," Rivera said.
He said the officers should have tried to communicate with Meister with pen and paper.
Hawthorne police provided a copy of a police report showing that they recognized Meister was deaf early on and that he tried to resist.
"Officers make every effort to communicate effectively," a statement from the Hawthorne police said. "In almost all cases, it is the person’s behavior and actions who we contact that dictate police response rather than the communication barriers present. That is certainly the case in this specific matter."