Last year St. Paul police officer Chad Koch had a thought that seemed pioneering yet obvious at the same time: The department has held classes to teach cops elementary Spanish, why not teach American Sign Language?

He took on the project himself, and got the department's first 10-week course rolling. If funds are available this year, he hopes that an intermediate course will be the next step in bridging the gap between law enforcement and St. Paul's deaf and hard of hearing residents.

Wednesday, the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans gave Koch its community justice award in a ceremony at the State Capitol.

"I think it's just assumed that it's not a minority community," said Koch, who is not deaf. "It is a whole different language, a whole different culture. There are a lot of things we need to know."

In 2006 the department was embroiled in a case involving a deaf community leader, Doug Bahl, who was sprayed with a chemical irritant and dragged out of his car for allegedly running a red light. Police said at the time that Bahl was uncooperative; his attorney said they used excessive force. Either way, communication was lacking.

Advocates said that Koch's work has made strides in improving communication. He also reached out to St. Paul schools, meeting with deaf students each week in addition to patrolling Rice Street.

Koch studied American Sign Language for three years at the University of Minnesota, then stopped practicing for about five years until he was hired as a St. Paul officer in 1999.

"For quite some time, the police force didn't have the ability or support to work with deaf or hard of hearing people who communicated with American Sign Language," said Marian Hausladen, an advocate and former chair of the commission.

Hausladen, now retired, was a social worker for St. Paul schools when Koch approached her about meeting with students, who were immediately enthralled with him.

"Oh my, it was like, 'A signing police officer?! Oh, cool!'" said Hausladen, who was given the commission's lifetime achievement award at the State Capitol ceremony. "I was just so thrilled."

Last summer, a deaf student reported a theft and dealt with an officer. Confused and concerned about the exchange, the student got in touch with Koch for additional help, she said.

"Chad's done an exceptional job, and he's gotten other officers involved," said Police Chief Thomas Smith.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708