On a whim, three St. Catherine University students sent the St. Paul Police Department a letter in December, urging it to revisit its work with people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
The students had just completed a project on the issue. Months went by with no response, so they were shocked to learn in May that their efforts had prompted a review of the matter and changes to a policy that hadn’t been touched in four years.
“We didn’t expect anything to come out of it,” said student Liza Leja. “Little progress, I’ve always believed, is still progress, so I felt proud.”
Leja and classmates Catherine Fensom and Pat Schmatz, who can all hear, identified several issues: vague information on the department’s website about services for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, confusion among staffers about those services, minimal training for officers about the community, and outdated terminology.
The department adopted changes on April 18, including a longer name — “Effective Communication with Persons Who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Deaf/Blind, Have Hearing Loss and/or for Whom English is a Second Language" — after the students objected to the old one, “Persons Handicapped in Communication.”
“For it to come this way — when somebody pulled a piece of policy … I don’t ever remember that happening,” said Deputy Chief Paul Iovino.
The department met with several advocates, including the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens and Global Deaf Muslim. The policy more clearly outlines the interpretation services available, encourages officers to consult with supervisors about the need for interpreters and prohibits the use of minors for interpretation.
It also requires officers attempting to take a statement from someone to offer a “certified” interpreter or Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) service. The old policy required offering a “qualified” interpreter, though one who is not nationally vetted.
“The conversation … increased awareness and sensitivity to issues about individuals with hearing loss,” said Marie Koehler, who was involved in the process and serves as the regional manager of the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services. “They have a stronger policy that better addresses the communication needs of this group of people.”
The students were in a class on deaf culture last fall when assistant professor Gloria Nathanson asked them to undertake a “social justice action plan” project. Schmatz proposed reviewing police practices.
“My group felt inclined to do this project because of the current climate with police,” said Leja, who just completed her sophomore year. “It’s also important to look at the deaf community, because not a lot of people do.”
They cited a settlement agreement reached in 2013 with deaf activist Douglas Bahl as a starting point. The students said they visited the Western District office and called several staffers at the department who were all unable to answer their questions about deaf and hard of hearing services or direct them to someone who could.
“It was frustrating when people would send you somewhere and they would send us elsewhere and you would be sent back,” said Fensom, who just finished her sophomore year. “It took us way longer than it should have. … For anyone who would require services, it could be a big deal.”
The students were repeatedly directed to Sgt. Chad Koch, who knows some American Sign Language (ASL) and met with them. The students said his work with the community was admirable but that he was neither sufficiently trained nor supported to be the department’s point person.
“Interactions with the police can be stressful and difficult, and clear communication is important,” the students wrote in a Dec. 29 e-mail to Chief Todd Axtell and copied to Mayor Melvin Carter. “The potential for misunderstanding is high when the interpreter has limited language skills.”