In October of last year, a deaf transgender woman filed a complaint against three Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers for misgendering her and handcuffing her when they involuntarily committed her to a hospital in 2019. A witness, who was a pastor and friend to the woman, called the officers’ reaction “over the top and aggressive.” However, for the most part, the Seattle police officers involved followed SPD policy during the interaction, in part because SPD policies regarding interactions with deaf people fall short of US Department of Justice best practices around handcuffing deaf people. 

On April 6, 2019, three Seattle Police officers–Nicholas Evans, Brandon McDougald, and Student Officer Alexander Lam–responded to a call about a person yelling at staff and customers inside a Big 5 in White Center. Officers arrived at the sporting goods store and spoke with employees, who said that the woman, Raticia Austring, had paid for a tent and a propane stove, but she grew frustrated when employees refused to sell her a knife, according to body-worn video reviewed and transcribed by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA). Employees said Austring wrote down threats. In an interview with OPA, Austring denied threatening employees.

When officers arrived at the store, they spoke with Austring, who wrote down that she’d paid for her items. Officer Evans responded verbally that they understood she paid for the items, but that she needed to leave the store. Austring left, taking her items and walking into the parking lot, but then she walked back to the officers. A moment later, Highline United Methodist Church Pastor Jennifer Partch, who had driven Austring to the Big 5, joined them. 

Over the next few minutes, Partch explained that Austring was deaf, a woman, and had schizophrenia. Partch also told officers that Cascade Behavioral Hospital doctors had discharged her from the hospital about two weeks earlier, and that she had been doing well and taking her medication up until a few days before, but then someone stole her backpack with her medication in it. Partch went on to explain that Austring was unhoused, that she’d been starting to decompensate after she lost her medication, and that the church had struggled to find a way to refill her prescription. 

McDougald then called for an ASL interpreter, who never arrived. After speaking with Partch, McDougald decided to involuntarily commit Austring, and Partch agreed.  

Meanwhile, Evans said that if Austring’s hand jerked one more time, then he’d put her in handcuffs. The transcription notes that she tried to use sign language throughout the interaction. Additionally, up to this point, nothing in the transcription indicated that Austring acted violently toward officers–at worst she asked one officer for a hug and repeatedly flipped them off. Soon after Evans made the comment about handcuffs, Austring tried to walk away, which officers had previously allowed her to do. Lam and Evans grabbed her, and Lam said, “Stay here,” a command Austring could not hear. At that point, the officers put her hands behind her back and handcuffed her. 

McDougald then radioed back to his sergeant, telling him that Austring “got pretty violent,” and he misgendered her in the process. When OPA later questioned his description of Austring as violent, he argued that she had approached officers’ faces and then tried to walk away.

After handcuffing Austring, the officers took the her to a bench and continued to give her verbal orders, according to the OPA narrative. No officers gave their commands to Austring in writing. When they got her on the bench Lam began to search Austring and did not ask Partch, who continued to try to write down things for Austring, to write and explain what Lam planned to do. Lam also did not offer for a woman officer to conduct the search. When Austring stood up and tried to resist a cop sticking his hands in her pockets with no explanation, the officers pushed Austring back down, according to the transcription. 

In the OPA narrative, Evans began to yell at Austring, and told her to “knock it off.” The OPA investigator noted that Evans appeared to be angry and told Austring, “We’re not playing games with you.” In an apparent response to Evans’s frustration, Partch reminded the cop that Austring was completely deaf and could not hear the officer. Evans said “okay,” but also seemed not to fully understand, as he made a comment about Austring being partially able to hear. When Evans later spoke with an OPA investigator, he continued to assert that Austring could at least partially hear him.

When the EMTs arrived to transport Austring to Harborview Medical Center, the OPA investigator notes in the body-worn video narrative that Austring appeared upset, and as Partch tried to comfort her, Austring began to cry. Evans told the EMTs to put a spit hood on Austring, and they obliged. Austring moved to the gurney without incident, and then the EMTs strapped her down. 

“Nothing Humane About This”

In an interview with The Stranger, Partch said she never understood why the officers became so aggressive with Austring. The whole interaction started out pretty relaxed, with the five of them standing around. Then they told Austring to sit down, or to stay, and when she wouldn’t the whole interaction took a sudden turn. 

Through an interpreter service, Austring told The Stranger in an interview that from what she remembered about that night she probably “embarrassed myself, to be honest” when she went into the store, but she never threatened employees, and she tried to explain to the officers what happened when they arrived, but the lack of an interpreter limited her ability to communicate with the cops. Then they handcuffed her hands behind her back and she couldn’t say anything anymore. 

The OPA investigator noted that while McDougald had two short, written exchanges with Austring, after that, no officer used pen and paper to communicate with Austring. McDougald said the inability to communicate with Austring led to officers putting her in handcuffs.

Austring became more agitated after the officers handcuffed her, and Partch said she remembers just writing over and over for Austring to “please calm down” and trying to keep Austring focused on her.

In a phone interview, Partch said she was surprised at how rough the officers became, especially when they “slammed” her down on the bench. Reflecting back on that night, she added that she had a very naive idea of what an involuntary commitment would mean for Austring, calling the process “terrorizing.”

“Watching how they strapped her down, and put the spit hood over her, I was just like, there is nothing humane about this,” Partch said.

At the time, Partch had hoped an involuntary commitment would mean that the officers could take Austring to a hospital and the doctors could stabilize her. And while that is what happened, Partch called it “a heck of a way to have to get your meds.” Washington’s mental health system pushes people into a point of crisis, when a walk-in clinic or easier access to medications could have avoided all of this, Partch said. 

After that night, Partch visited Austring at the hospital. Austring thought Partch’s arrival meant she could leave, which made her happy, but she ended up spending two weeks at the hospital before doctors would release her back to Highline United Methodist Church. Austring lived at the church for about two years, during which time the church worked hard to connect her with case workers, finally securing her a housing voucher. Now Austring lives on her own. 

Still, Austring called the way SPD handled her that evening “wrong.” In 2023, she decided to file a complaint against the officers.

The OPA investigated and found the officers violated policy in not fully documenting Austring’s side of the story, for leaving some of her money on the ground, and for McDougald failing to address Austring by her correct pronouns. The OPA found the evidence inconclusive on whether Evans had a duty to offer Austring a woman officer to search her instead of a man, because the OPA determined it was unclear whether Evans knew Austring was transgender. The OPA did not investigate Lam, as he was only a student officer at the time.

Regardless of the OPA findings, the officers cannot face any discipline as the department’s contract with its police union prevents SPD from taking any disciplinary action for complaints that are more than four years old, unless the complaints involve criminal conduct. The involuntary commitment happened in April 2019, and Austring did not file a complaint until October 2023, missing the window by about six months. The OPA did recommend more training on professionalism for McDougald. 

Update: SPD responded with a copy of the internal handbook for officers, which tells officers to consider handcuffing deaf people in front of their bodies rather than behind them, to allow a deaf person to communicate via sign language or in writing. Nothing in the OPA indicates why officers handcuffed Austring behind her back.