The Austin Chronicle

Austin Jailer Breaks Elderly Deaf Woman’s Arm After Misunderstanding at Airport

After three days in jail with only Aleve as treatment, she has received surgery

By Brant Bingamon, March 24, 2023, News

Karen McGee, a deaf, 71-year-old Florida resident, is considering a lawsuit against the city of Austin after what was supposed to be a three-hour layover at Austin-Berg­strom International Airport turned into an arrest, a weekend in the Travis County Jail, and an arm broken by a jailer and left untreated for three days.

McGee's ordeal began on the afternoon of Sept. 13, 2022, as she waited for a connecting flight from Austin to Seattle. She was flying alone for the first time in her life and nervous because her hearing aids weren't working well, so she sat within sight of the ticket desk to see when her plane would begin boarding. After noticing that it hadn't boarded on time she spoke with a ticket agent and was distressed to learn that she had missed an announcement that her gate had changed. With her plane already gone, she was issued a ticket for a flight leaving that evening.

While McGee waited for this flight, she texted with her cousin and learned there was another plane parked at the same gate, going to the same destination. She approached the ticket agent and asked if she could switch her ticket to this flight. She had trouble hearing the agent's response but understood the answer was no. She then made the same request to a different agent. Unbeknownst to McGee, this second agent called the police.

McGee's attorney, Rebecca Webber, said she has video showing that the officers who responded did not ensure that McGee could hear them. During the exchange, an airport employee read McGee a trespass warning. "He doesn't get down on her level at all, which is the only way to get her to hear you," Webber said. "If they had any training about how hearing aids work they would know that in a loud area she won't be able to distinguish just one voice. The person needs to get down on her level, speak slowly, and then she'll be able to put it all together."

McGee was placed in a wheelchair and pushed to the front of the airport, believing she was in the process of rebooking her flight. Once outside, officers handcuffed her and took her to the Travis County Jail on suspicion of trespassing. "All I did was stand up and then they were all around me," McGee said. "And I don't remember them saying anything to me, or even to each other."

At the jail, McGee said, she was shoved against a wall as officers stripped off her clothes, and she screamed, "Not my ring!" when officers began to remove it. She said an officer then told her something she did not understand, she asked, "What?" and in response a different officer twisted her handcuffs with enough force to break her arm.

McGee says that she "lost time" and awoke in a jail cell with her clothes back on, but inside out. Her arm was aching and she held it close to her body. She was given Aleve but not taken to an emergency room. Upon leaving the jail after three days of detention, she collapsed. A police officer called an emergency medical technician, who helped her contact her husband and get her to a hotel for the night. She had surgery on her arm after making it home to Florida. After examining the trespassing case, County Attorney Delia Garza chose not to prosecute.

Webber said that McGee's ordeal could have been avoided if the city would commit to guaranteeing free defense attorneys to people when they are brought to the jail, a process known as "counsel at first appearance," or CAFA. "If Travis County and the city of Austin had instituted counsel at first appearance, every single person involved would have realized that Karen McGee does not belong in jail," Webber said. "This case, in my opinion, is Exhibit A for why Travis County and the city need to stop saying they can't put CAFA in place."

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