Abreham Zemedagegehu, homeless U.S. citizen born in Ethiopia, spent six weeks in an Arlington county jail after being accused of stealing an iPad later found by the owner who lost it. But because Zemedagegehu only knew Ethiopian and American Sign Languages, and only rudimentary written English, the jailers could not communicate with him. When he lived in New York City, he was profiled by The New York Times, which noted cops sometimes got angry with him because they wouldn't realize he was deaf. He claims in a lawsuit against the county jail and the sheriff's office that he didn't even know why he had been jailed.
The Associated Press reports:
Maj. Susie Doyel, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, which runs the jail, declined to comment on the specific allegations. She generally defended the jail's ability to handle deaf inmates and others with disabilities, and said several deputies in the jail are proficient in sign language.
But she also acknowledged that communication with a deaf inmate is more problematic in cases where the inmate can't communicate in written English.
In court papers filed Monday, lawyers for the sheriff ask a judge to dismiss the case, arguing that even if Zemedagegehu's allegations are true, they fail to show intentional discrimination because they attempted various different ways to communicate with him, including handwritten notes.
And even if the discrimination were intentional, the lawyers write that it would not violate federal law because there is a rational basis for the discrimination: "it takes extra resources and creates additional security considerations to bring in an ASL [American Sign Language] interpreter," they write.
Of course if the jail has deputies who are proficient in sign language then it wouldn't need extra resources to bring in an interpreter, would it? Zemedagegehu claims the jail violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in not providing him with an interpreter.
But, as The Washington Post's Radley Balko noted earlier this week, the important question about incident of police abuse—from the perspective of systemic reform—is whether the incident was necessary and acceptable and not just legal. It does appear the jail violated the ADA but anyone who's seen these kinds of cases before knows that's no guarantee the incident won't be found to have been within departmental policy. But when authorities hold a man for six weeks for a crime that's resolved it first, and insist they followed appropriate policies and procedures, isn't it time to change those policies and procedures?