Deaf veteran blames mix-up for arrest
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, HI
The Honolulu man will face charges of harassing an officer
By Mary Vorsino
Martin Swanson can't read lips. He's never learned sign language, either.
That's why the 54-year-old Vietnam War veteran, who has been deaf for 35 years, says he didn't understand what a police officer was trying to tell him recently while on his way home from work. He figured it had something to do with his being on a closed sidewalk, he said.
Seconds later, Swanson was on the ground with the police officer's knee jabbing his back. Swanson suffered at least four broken ribs and several cuts and bruises in the arrest, which he alleges was unprovoked.
He is scheduled to appear in court Oct. 20 to answer charges that he harassed a police officer in the incident.
But the U.S. Postal Service mail sorter, who lost his hearing and full use of one of his legs in an explosion during the Vietnam War, said the encounter was an unfortunate misunderstanding.
"I think the police need to at least recognize when they're dealing with a deaf person," said Swanson, who has short-cropped gray hair and stands a little over 5-foot-6.
Swanson, who lives on Ward Avenue, was grappling with other medical problems before the arrest. Now, he said, his broken ribs have kept him out of his heavy-lifting job for more than three weeks, and doctors are urging him to stay out for another month.
A Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman deferred comment on the incident to the city Prosecutor's Office.
Jim Fulton, executive assistant to the city prosecutor, declined to talk about the case. But he said the charges would not have been filed if there wasn't enough evidence.
He also said he didn't think the police officer knew Swanson was "hard of hearing on the initial contact."
"The courts have to settle this," Fulton said. "His action somehow ... (triggered) alarm."
The incident started about noon Aug. 26, when Swanson was walking on a Keeaumoku Street sidewalk toward his Beretania Street bus stop after having breakfast at Ala Moana Center. At Keeaumoku Street's intersection with Young Street, Swanson came across a sign that said the sidewalk was closed.
Swanson said because he was tired and there was no construction on the sidewalk at the time, he decided to walk in the closed sidewalk rather than cross the street.
He said he thinks that's when a police officer spotted him and started yelling for him to stop, but he isn't sure. The first indication he had that an officer was trying to get his attention was about halfway through the closed crosswalk, when he felt a hand on his shoulder, Swanson said.
He turned around and was facing an officer. He said the officer was talking and making hand signals, none of which Swanson understood.
Presuming that the officer was saying he wasn't supposed to be walking in a closed sidewalk, Swanson said he told the officer he would turn around and cross the street.
He got to the crosswalk, waited for the light and was about to step into the street when the officer was in front of him again, he said.
At that point, Swanson said, the officer seemed to be angry and yelling.
The officer then made a hand signal, which Swanson said he took as a request for identification. When he went to reach for his wallet in his front pocket, the officer grabbed his shoulders, he said.
Then, Swanson said, he was spun around and thrown against a fence. His legs were kicked out from under him and he fell to the ground, he said.
Swanson was kept there until more officers arrived, and was handcuffed while still face-down on the sidewalk. All the while, "I tried to explain that I can't hear."
But Swanson said no one listened.
Swanson was taken to the Queen's Medical Center for his injuries. That's where a doctor realized that Swanson was deaf and told the arresting officers.
Once they found out Swanson is a veteran, officers took him to Tripler Army Medical Center. After that, he was transported to Honolulu police headquarters.
By 9 p.m. -- 11 hours after he was arrested -- longtime friend Owen Stanley paid Swanson's $100 bail and was able to take him home. Stanley said Swanson was badly shaken by the incident, and still confused about what had happened.
"He's very scared. He's very concerned. He doesn't know what he did to anger the officer," Stanley said. "Somebody made a very big mistake."
Rodney Ching, Swanson's lawyer, said he's surprised the state didn't dismiss the case after an Aug. 31 arraignment.
"They went way overboard in arresting him," he said. "I don't think they had grounds to arrest to begin with."
© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulleti
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