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Police Beat, Stun Deaf Man After Confusing Sign Language With Threatening Gestures

HAWTHORNE ( — Jonathan Meister was retrieving some stuff he was storing at an ex-roommate's home when he looked up to find several members of the Hawthorne Police Department approaching.

The South Bay man claims officers didn't give him a chance to explain what he was doing before placing him in handcuffs, beating him and using a stun gun to shock him into submission.

The problem began when police reportedly misunderstood Meister's attempts to speak in sign language as threatening gestures.

Moreover, officers didn't realize that when they handcuffed Meister, who is "profoundly deaf" and non-verbal, they took away his ability to communicate.

Now, the architect from Manhattan Beach is suing the city of Hawthorne, its police department and several of its officers for what happened that day.

The incident began on the evening of Feb. 13, 2013, when Meister arranged to get some things his ex-roommate was holding for him on his back porch. Someone saw Meister hauling items, thought it looked suspicious, and called police.

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.

The situation deteriorated from there.

Police put Meister in handcuffs and officers say he began struggling.

"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 said.

The suit claims the officers' response was excessive. The suit alleges police used a stun gun to bring him to the ground and beat him.

He was arrested and taken to the Hawthorne police station, where he communicated in writing.

Police initially charged Meister with assaulting officers but those charges were eventually dropped.

Meister 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.

Hawthorne police provided a copy of the police report showing they recognized Meister was deaf early on and that he tried to resist.

Meister's hand-written account to police says he didn't mean to resist.

River says officers should have tried to communicate with Meister using a pen and a piece of paper.

Police released a statement that said, in part: "Officers make every effort to communicate effectively…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…"

Hawthorne police also say they officers already receive training on handling situations where communication proves difficult.

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