Chattanooga police will sit down next week with members of the city's deaf and hard of hearing community, some of whom say they have felt discriminated against for far too long.
The forum, scheduled for Tuesday, May 8, comes as part of the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults' efforts to bridge gaps in cultural understanding between the two groups.
"With the positive leadership at Chattanooga Police Department, we feel like this is an excellent time to bring these two parties together," said Pam Smith, director of the Partnership's Services for the Deaf, Deaf-Blind and Hard of Hearing.
The nonprofit will also use the public gathering as an opportunity to unveil its deaf driver card, which drivers can show to officers during traffic stops to immediately communicate that they are deaf or hard of hearing. The card also displays images that officers can point to in order to explain the purpose of the stop and ensuing orders.
Several people around the country with hearing impairments have been arrested or assaulted by police officers unaware of their disability, and late last year, deaf man in Oklahoma City was shot and killed by police after he failed to obey their commands.
"Too often we hear of this miscommunication within the community; however, we rarely see any mention of it in the news," said retired associate professor Bea Lyons, who taught American Sign Language at Chattanooga State Community College for 35 years.
As a hard of hearing individual herself, Lyons said she has had no negative experiences with police personnel, though she attributed that in part to her ability to lip-read.
But not all hearing impaired people can read lips, said Troy Bowman, one of Chattanooga's many deaf residents. Matters can be complicated further if an individual has not realized that an officer is trying to communicate with them, he added. Bowman recounted a situation in Atlanta where he turned to find an officer tailing him with "a facial expression implying suspicion" because he had not stopped when the officer called out to ask him about an ongoing investigation in the area.
"There are between 4,000 and 5,000 deaf/hard of hearing people in the metro [Chattanooga area]. [Police] should keep this in mind when trying to get someone's attention by vocal means," he said.
All in all, Bowman said "100 percent" of his interactions with police in Chattanooga, East Ridge, Signal Mountain and Red Bank have been positive, and he is looking forward to growing the deaf community's relationship with law enforcement officials while sharing communication tips.
"Establishing a mutual understanding between the deaf and hard of hearing communities and the police is way overdue and would go a long way to improve trust and feelings of safety and security," said Lyons.
She also hopes the forum will allow attendees to acknowledge other issues, like the need for an alternative method of contacting emergency responders outside of voice communication via phone.
The town hall meeting will be held from 6-8 p.m. at the Partnership's Deaf, Deaf-Blind and Hard of Hearing Services Center, located at 5600 Brainerd Road, Suite E-1. Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy and others will be present during the forum, and the public is invited to attend.
"It is my belief that with some dedicated training and time spent learning more about the members of the deaf community, we will better understand and communicate with each other," Roddy said in a news release.
Deaf driver cards will be available for pickup at the center during regular business hours.