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Why this criminal justice student wants to become Boston’s first deaf police officer

Mohamed Abanoor, a criminal justice student at Northeastern, is planning to change what are often fraught interactions between police and deaf people—by becoming an officer himself. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Mohamed Abanoor is excited—and relieved.

He just learned from his audiologist that, with his hearing aids, he’ll meet the hearing requirements the Boston Police Department sets for its potential recruits—a standard he had been worried would stand in his way of achieving a goal he’s held for years: becoming a Boston police officer.

Without the hearing aids, Abanoor is completely deaf. And though he appreciates the rationale behind a hearing test, it’s emblematic of the myriad challenges deaf people face when interfacing with a world built for hearing people.

“I understand that police officers, in the course of their work, are in dangerous situations, and being able to attend to your surroundings in as many ways as possible is useful and lifesaving,” he says. “But what police do is very visual as well, and deaf people are superlative at visual acuity. We have peripheral vision skills beyond what hearing people do, so I’m able to see things in my periphery that other people aren’t.”

Abanoor uses American Sign Language, and an interpreter translated between English and ASL during an interview with a News@Northeastern reporter.

Boston isn’t unique in its requirements; municipalities across the country put would-be emergency personnel through a battery of exercises that test a range of physical abilities, including vision, hearing, strength, and mental acuity.

But Abanoor, who is studying criminal justice at Northeastern University, sees room for improvement.

mohamed abanoor on advocating for the deaf community
mohamed abanoor uses sign language to explain how he plans to advocate for the deaf community
If—when—Abanoor succeeds in his mission to become a Boston police officer, he’d become the first deaf officer on the force, he says. For now, Abanoor, who signs ‘P.D.’ here, is on co-op at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Abanoor describes himself as “a scattered and troubled kid” when he was younger. That all changed in 2013.

He and his family—born and bred Bostonians—had gone to watch the city’s annual marathon, a signature event for runners from around the world. That year, however, the race became famous for another reason: Two men detonated a pair of homemade bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 others. Abanoor and his family had been standing across the street from the site of the second explosion, and luckily, police evacuated them before it detonated.

“The police announced that everyone needed to evacuate as quickly as possible, that it was an emergency situation,” Abanoor recalls. “We did it, but we didn’t know why. I didn’t understand what was happening.”

Once they got home, Abanoor was glued to TV news coverage of the event and its aftermath, which included a dramatic police shootout involving one suspect and a prolonged manhunt for the second.

“I was furious and heartbroken,” after the bombing, Abanoor says. “It felt personal to me, because it happened in my hometown.”

The quick response by the police, however, was “inspiring,” he says. It piqued a fascination for Abanoor, and would serve as the beginning of his passion for understanding criminal justice and policing.

“From that point, I became very invested in my education, and my career goal became to work in the police department,” he says.

As he began learning more about policing, he soon found something else that hit close to home: “The Deaf community’s relationship with the police, writ large, has always been problematic,” he says.

The group Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (or HEARD), a nonprofit organization that supports people with a range of disabilities, has counted at least 10 cases in the past five years of police officers using violence against deaf people, including six instances of fatal shootings.

Among those was a 2017 case in Oklahoma City during which officers fatally shot a deaf man who was not following their spoken directives. As witnesses to the event explained, he couldn’t understand them.

“Police in general don’t understand that people want to comply, they want to do what they’re being told but can’t understand what’s being said to them,” Abanoor says.

In particular, he says, “hands are vital within Deaf culture and the Deaf community, in order to communicate, but without specific training, police see hands moving and think, ‘Danger.’ It’s something they have to look out for as a threat, but in these cases, it’s just someone trying to communicate.”

The Deaf community is also very small, Abanoor says, a fact that contributes to the problem.

According to some federal estimates, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population is functionally deaf, and more than half of that population is people who are over 65 years old.

“The hearing world in general gets a lot of the spotlight in terms of news coverage; we’re almost a hidden population,” Abanoor says. “And so because we’re not getting mainstream media attention, police aren’t exposed to the intricacies and nuances of our culture or even introduced to individual members of our community. Police interactions with the Deaf community are very rare, and often very fraught.”

Police departments are trying to build better practices. 

In Amherst, New York, officers have begun using video remote sign language interpreters to better communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. In January 2020, the New York Police Department hired its first officer whose first language was American Sign Language. The officer is hearing, but grew up with deaf parents.

And if—when—Abanoor succeeds in his mission to become a Boston police officer, he’d become the first deaf officer on the force, he says.

For now, Abanoor is on co-op at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, where he’s reviewing case files of unsolved homicides in the district, identifying sources of leads and potential next steps, then passing that information along to officers, an experience that’s made him more interested in potentially becoming a homicide detective, he says.

As he learns more about the justice system, Abanoor says he continues to find new opportunities to serve his community.

“The criminal justice system is in place to keep societies safe,” he says, “and my passion is around the system getting better, improving what we know is an imperfect system, particularly around race and audism: this idea of discriminating against people because of their hearing status. I know there are improvements that can be made so that the system can work better for everyone, and I want to be a change agent in that process.”

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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