By David H. Kirkwood
The June 20 New York Times ran a story that I think will be of particular interest to people with hearing loss who are—or want to be—in the work force. Written by Joseph Goldstein, this excellent article (available at www.nytimes.com/2011/06/20/nyregion/ny-enforces-ban-on-police-officers-using-hearing-aids.html?_r=1) tells about two veteran New York police officers who were forced to retire because they wore hearing aids. The men—Daniel Carione, 44, and Jim Phillips, 40–have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charging that the New York Police Department (NYPD) policy banning officers from using hearing aids on the job is discriminatory.
Before hiring a new officer, the NYPD requires the candidate to pass a basic hearing test. That seems reasonable. There are many situations in which keen hearing (and vision) could be vital in enabling cops to protect the public and themselves.
However, after that, the department doesn’t routinely test its officers’ hearing or do anything else to determine if they can still hear well. That’s true even though police are often exposed to dangerous noise levels at work, notably when patrolling the subways. So, while there are undoubtedly a significant number of senior officers whose hearing isn’t what it used to be, the risk that they will be identified and forced onto disability or into retirement is slim. Slim, that is, unless they do what former officers Carione and Phillips did: openly acknowledge their hearing loss by addressing it with hearing aids. It was the responsible decision, but they lost their jobs for making it.
Basically, the NYPD’s position toward hearing loss is like the military’s discredited and recently abandoned “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gay and lesbian service personnel. It’s okay to be a gay soldier or a hard-of-hearing cop as long as you don’t tell anyone.
To Colleen Meenan, the lawyer representing Carione and Phillips in their EEOC complaint, the hearing aid ban is clearly discriminatory. In an interview with Hearing Health Matters, Meenan said the police department “is not legally justified in following a policy that only affects people who come forward. The policy should be applied universally.”
The attorney also noted that the NYPD forced her clients to retire without assessing their ability to perform their duties while wearing hearing aids. She believes that the department should conduct an individual assessment of an officer with a hearing loss rather than simply terminate anyone who gets hearing aids and ignore those who don’t.
A CASE FULL OF IRONIES
The department’s policy of banning hearing aids while turning a blind eye (or deaf ear) to hearing loss is one of many ironies in this case.
Another, the Times reports, is that it was the police department that arranged for Carione to get hearing help. The former officer attributes his hearing loss to a 1996 incident when a fellow officer, fending off an attack by a man wielding a knife, fired off five rounds from within 2 feet of Carione’s ear. A few years ago, NYPD sent Carione to an audiologist and paid the $3000 cost of the hearing aid that was recommended. While the ban on hearing aids may have already been on the books—it’s not clear when it was written–it was not until late 2009 that the department began to enforce it.
Prior to that, Thomas Graham, a former deputy chief who wore a hearing aid, told the Times that in 37 years on the force he had never heard of any opposition to hearing aids.
However, soon after Officer Phillips began wearing hearing aids in October 2009, he was told he would have to retire. His hearing loss was also work-related, he said, tracing it to a protest by hundreds of whistle-blowing construction workers that he was assigned to police. When Phillips asked why he couldn’t keep his job and his hearing aids, he told the Times reporter that he was advised by the department that they could get knocked out of his ears by a criminal.
“But,” Phillips said, “eyeglasses can be knocked off too. I contend that if you draw your weapon, you’re better off not having hearing aids than not having eyeglasses.”
While the NYPD is bent on eliminating hearing aid wearers, it doesn’t seem to be doing anything about officers who need hearing aids but don’t wear them—at least not on the job. One cop, who was not named, told the Times that he has a hearing aid but only wears it when he is off duty. Colleen Meenan cited three other officers who used to wear hearing aids at work, but were ordered to stop if they wanted to keep their jobs. A police department spokesman explained that these three officers “were under the impression they needed hearing aids, but did not.”
In a final irony, there is one police official who doesn’t have to worry about his department’s hearing aid ban. That’s New York’s “top cop,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Is that because at age 69 his hearing is still sharp? Not at all. In fact, he does wear a hearing aid. However, the commissioner is a civilian employee, and therefore not subject to the rules that apply to uniformed officers.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
I’ve lived most of my adult life in New York, so I have an appreciation of how incredibly difficult a job it is to bring law and order to the nation’s largest city. I have watched with great admiration how the NYPD has grown into a far more effective, professional, and humane organization than it was 40 years ago. The crime rate, once one of the higher among U.S. cities, is now as low or lower than any other large American city. The number of murders, which hit a peak of 2245 in 1990, had dropped by 76% to 532 in 2010.
Ray Kelly has been commissioner through much of this time. In the early 1990s, when the decades’ long rise in violent crime finally turned around and headed downward, he instituted neighborhood policing strategies widely credited with helping start and sustain the decline in crime that has continued ever since. In 2002, he returned to the commissioner’s office, and has only added to his outstanding record since then.
However, when it comes to the hearing aid issue, which I expect seems a lot more important to us here at hearinghealthmatters.org than to the rest of the world, the NYPD’s policy could not be more wrong-headed.
By “retiring” two officers who have done the right thing and got help for their hearing loss, the department is basically telling the rest of the force that if they have a hearing loss, they had better hide it. Clearly, what the department should be doing is routinely testing officers’ hearing every few years to be sure that it is still good enough for them to perform their duties safely and effectively. If it isn’t, the department should get them the help they need.
I suspect that one reason the NYPD is not doing this already is that its perceptions of hearing aids are obsolete. The policy makers very likely do not realize just how good modern hearing aids are. They may not understand that many hard-of-hearing officers, if properly fitted and counseled, will be able to do their work as well as when they were young and had normal hearing. In fact, their years of experience probably make them much better cops than they were as rookies. What a shame it is that this no hearing aid policy is costing it the services of some of New York’s finest.
Now that the press has drawn attention to this subject, let’s hope that Commissioner Kelly will step in and amend NYPD policy so that his fellow hearing aid wearers will have an opportunity to continue serving the people of New York.
A query to readers
I am curious about what Hearing Views readers think about this issue. Also, do any of you know if cities other than New York have similar policies toward hearing loss and hearing aids? Please leave your comment here.