One of the challenges for people with hearing impairments is a communications gap with law enforcement. Lack of understanding on either side can have dire consequences during a traffic stop or arrest. That’s why the Webster Groves-based non-profit Deaf, Incorporated is building bridges with local police, sheriffs, and first responders, to cut down on the number of difficult encounters between police and the hard of hearing.

“We all know somebody who is deaf who’s had some horrible encounter with police,” signed Thomas Hoerjes, Deaf, Inc. executive director. He was talking to members of the deaf community who gathered to hear a presentation from Jefferson Sheriff’s Department Corporal Jason Clardy, followed by a question and answer session.

“You’re looking at the future of law enforcement,” said Clardy. “It’s bridging all gaps with all communities. If we can bridge the communication gap and we start communicating effectively with each other then more or less you are setting yourself up for success.”

One woman shared her frustration with Clardy after she and her son were stopped by police.

“When he (police officer) left, I asked my son what he said, and my son didn’t even know what he had said.”

Another woman: “The police officer thinks I’m ignoring them. How can I identify myself as a deaf person?”

Corporal Clardy’s response illustrated why deaf sensitivity training is needed.

“We run into someone who’s deaf or hard of hearing, it’s almost a shock to us. We don’t know how to respond initially because it’s something we don’t deal with every day,” said Clardy. “When we are out there, we are thinking worst case scenario.”

Less than a year ago, August 2016, that worst case scenario took place near Charlotte, NC. Daniel Harris, a man who was deaf, was shot dead by State Trooper Jermaine Saunders, after Harris tried to avoid a traffic stop by speeding away. Because there was a high-speed chase of up to 100 miles per hour, it’s unclear how much Harris’ deafness contributed to the fatal encounter.

According to the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, there is approximately 167,000 people in metropolitan St. Louis who are deaf or hearing impaired. Deaf, Inc. has provided training sessions to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, and police officers in Bridgeton, Webster Groves, Chesterfield, Frontenac, and Richmond Heights. Deaf, Inc. community advocate Devon Whitmore said there is growing recognition that deaf sensitivity training is beneficial, along with creating opportunities for interaction between the police and deaf community.

“The officers have told us that they’ve got really good results, they feel more confident, they feel more prepared, so if they had an encounter with a deaf person they would know what to do,” said Whitmore.

For more information, www.deafinc.org, or (314) 714-6402.

By Art Holiday | KSDK