TACOMA, Wash. - A federal disability rights group has launched a probe into how Tacoma police and the Pierce County Jail treated a deaf crime victim.
That action comes as a direct result of a KIRO Team 7 Investigation.
In a report on August 5, Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne exposed how Tacoma police tased Lashonn White on April 6 just minutes after she called 911 for their help. Police reports say White failed to heed a call to “stop” – something White says there was no way for her to hear. She’s been deaf since birth. Officers arrested White on charges of assault and obstruction anyway.
“I mean imagine—all I did was come running, wave my hands and come running out, and the next thing I know I’m on the ground,” White explained to Halsne through a certified American Sign Language interpreter.
A prosecutor declined to file any charges against White, but didn’t review the case for nearly three days. White sat in jail about 60 hours over the Easter holiday weekend before being released.
Halsne discovered that when someone who doesn’t speak English is booked into the Pierce County Jail, staff calls interpreters on the phone so they can explain basic information to the new inmate like charges, medical needs and the time of their initial court date.
Deaf inmates don’t get that same courtesy because the jail does not have a video phone which allows for sign language communications.
“They didn’t read my charges to me or anything,” White said. “I’m still wondering exactly what happened. I think it didn’t make any sense. Why do we have an Americans with Disabilities Act?”
Hardened criminals might not think entering the Pierce County Jail is scary but for someone like White, who has never been arrested, the experience was emotionally overwhelming.
“When I was in jail—all I wanted to do is cry. I was so upset. I just couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I’m thinking—'What am I doing here?' I was doing my best to get along with people because I was nervous. I don’t know who’s in there,” said White.
Jail staff told Team 7 Investigators it was apparent White had injuries when Tacoma police dropped her off to be booked.
According to jail records, correction officers called a nurse and noted their new inmate was "Tazed (sic) prior to booking" and "is deaf - use written instructions when possible.”
White feared exchanging notes with police or jailers because she thought they may be misused against her later, so she requested an American Sign Language interpreter to facilitate clear communication.
Yet, one never came.
Jail Administrator Lt. Patty Jackson believes Pierce County followed all disability-rights laws. She said inmates are never questioned about their pending criminal cases, so corrections officers only need to convey the simplest of matters.
“We make certain they are fed; we make certain they are safe and that they are clothed. We understand there are complications. We understand fear,” Jackson said. “We take great pride in making certain that whether it’s somebody who speaks Russian or Spanish or somebody that is deaf, somebody who is blind, we make certain that we’re doing what we can.”
Jackson said the jail made special accommodations for White, assigning her a smaller living space with fewer cellmates.
Records show guards were put on notice “White could not hear or speak.”
To make her “call”, White was given access to an old-fashioned text phone called a TTY, but there was a big problem.
“I tried to dial through the phone and use this thing and it’s not even working right. It’s terrible, the technology’s terrible, I finally said 'Forget it,'” said White.
Jail audio logs confirm another inmate had to contact White's family for her on a regular phone, telling them the TTY phone was “not working” and that Lashonn was sorry for missing a “happy Easter”.
Two months after White's stay, we discovered the same unusable TTY phone was still in circulation with a bad battery. After our questions about that phone, the jail pulled it from service.
“That, unfortunately, is the real reality of discrimination, whether someone intends to discriminate or not,” said David Carlson, an attorney with Disabilities Rights Washington.
Disability Rights Washington is designated by the governor and mandated by Congress to investigate potential abuse and neglect of people with disabilities. They are investigating White’s case.
Carlson said KIRO Team 7 Investigators have uncovered some troubling policies and practices at both the Pierce County Jail and within the Tacoma Police Department.
“To the community of deaf and hard-of-hearing, it can really scare people off of asking for police help. We don’t want that to happen. We want to feel as safe as we can make them in our communities,” Carlson said.
Disabilities Rights Washington told Halsne it has already contacted the City of Tacoma and an investigation is under way and ongoing.