Cops With Hearing Aids?

SHOULD police officers be allowed to wear hearing aids?

In 2011, two New York City police officers, each with 20 years on the force, were forcibly retired for doing just that.

The year before, the N.Y.P.D. had finalized a policy requiring recruits to pass the standard hearing test without hearing aids. Officers who requested hearing aids would also be given the test. If they couldn’t pass it without the aids, they were off the force. Before that, any existing policy (if there was one, which is unclear) was not enforced.

When the issue is public safety, we understandably want the standards to be very high. But most people don’t understand hearing loss, and they don’t understand hearing aids. The N.Y.P.D. didn’t, and neither did I initially.

Daniel Carione, a deputy inspector, and James Phillips, a sergeant, had both suffered hearing loss on the job: Mr. Carione was involved in a shootout, and his partner’s gun went off close to his ear; Mr. Phillips was assigned to police a demonstration of whistle-blowing construction workers. When they later began to worry about their hearing, the N.Y.P.D. had them tested, and then provided high-quality hearing aids for them. Mr. Carione has a hearing aid in one ear, Mr. Phillips in both. The two officers went back to their jobs.

Some months later, both were told they had to retire. Both fought it. Eventually the two officers became joint plaintiffs in a case against the city. (I’m on the board of trustees of the Hearing Loss Association of America, which signed on to an amicus brief filed in the case.)

The city’s defense was based in part on a report that had been prepared for the United States Postal Service, which found problems with hearing aids that might impair performance on the job: They could miss sounds normal hearing would pick up; they require batteries that could go dead without warning; they have control switches and knobs that the user must adjust and which will most likely fail during the life of the device; and they may become blocked by earwax or rendered inoperative during a physical confrontation.

Sounds pretty damning, right? The problem is that not only was this report not issued in this decade, it wasn’t even issued in this century. It was prepared in 1996. Today’s digital hearing aids have few such complications.

The part about hearing aids’ becoming inoperative during a confrontation was one that particularly vexed the officers. The N.Y.P.D. allows officers to wear glasses and prosthetic limbs. “Imagine an active shooter protocol. I’m working with my hearing aid,” Mr. Carione said to me. “The officer on my left wears prescription glasses. The officer on my right wears a prosthetic leg. The glasses fall off and shatter. The prosthetic leg fractures. My hearing aid battery gives me a 40-minute warning, but let’s say it unexpectedly goes dead. The assailant turns the corner. One officer can’t see. One can’t walk. I can hear out of one ear and more important, I can see. Who would you want standing by?”

This month, nearly four years after the officers filed their suit, the city settled the case in their favor. Recruits are now allowed to wear hearing aids when they take the hearing test. So are active-duty officers who ask for hearing aids. A policy review is still ongoing, but once officers pass the test, it’s likely that their ability to perform “essential functions” will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Boston does permit aids for serving officers on a case-by-case basis. But this does not always offer adequate protection, as was shown last year when Detective Delores Facey, a 19-year veteran of the department, was forced to retire. In a suit she filed against the city, she said the decision was made because she failed to pass a hearing test without her hearing aids.

A few years ago, in a memoir on my own hearing loss, I wrote that I agreed with bans on hearing aids: “I don’t want someone like me pulling a gun on criminals, responding to fires, working for the E.M.S., flying a plane or doing any of a variety of other jobs where hearing well is crucial.” I was as ill informed as most people are.

Now I know that someone like me won’t be pulling a gun on criminals. I couldn’t pass the hearing test no matter what — my hearing loss is too severe. The bigger issue is that the N.Y.P.D’s ban on hearing aids most likely kept many hearing-impaired police officers, who knew that their jobs were at risk, from getting the help they needed. New Yorkers have a higher-than-average risk of hearing loss, and this is probably especially true for police officers, who work in the subways and on noisy streets.

Policies like New York’s, and actions like Boston’s, discourage officers with hearing loss from coming forward, with the result that we have many police officers with uncorrected hearing loss. This is a true public safety issue.