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Like many drivers, Cathi Hilts has been pulled over for a traffic violation.
But for Hilts, the otherwise routine situation included an added stress. The Boiling Springs resident is deaf.
“Sometimes the police can be quite ignorant,” Hilts said through an interpreter. “I’ll tell them I’m deaf and try to gesture to write notes with me, and they don’t know what to do. They start talking to me. It gets me angry and frustrated.”
Hilts is not alone in her frustration. While many in the deaf community say their encounters with law enforcement have been positive, they also say they'd like to see more officers improve their ability to communicate.
In an effort to do just that, some law enforcement agencies have begun training officers on how to respond when they encounter a deaf person. Officials hope the increased awareness will reduce misunderstandings and ensure deaf residents get proper assistance.
Issues surrounding communication between law enforcement and deaf men and women came into dramatic focus last year after an incident in North Carolina.
Daniel Harris, a 29-year-old deaf man, was fatally shot in August by a North Carolina state trooper after a high-speed chase that ended near Harris' home in Charlotte. An investigation following the shooting found Harris may have been having a mental health crisis when he left his car and ran toward a trooper.
While the report concluded there was "no evidence" that Harris' deafness was a factor in the situation, the incident prompted some law enforcement agencies to examine how they could improve interactions with deaf residents.
Scott Falcone, director of the division of outreach services at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind in Spartanburg, said he’s part of a team that was contacted recently by the Rock Hill Police Department to provide deaf sensitivity training to officers. He said that came about in response to the North Carolina shooting.
“We provide a good understanding of working with individuals, or how to interact with individuals who are deaf, blind or both deaf and blind,” Falcone said. “The sensitivity training covers all areas of what to do when you approach a person who is deaf and cultural differences between those who are deaf and hearing.”
Spartanburg resident Mary Washko said such training is even more important than learning basic sign language because it can help officers become familiar with the different communication methods used by deaf people.
"I always thought it would be nice if police officers ... had some sensitivity training,” Washko said through an interpreter. “Maybe cultural practice, or training (in working with) deaf people. I would rather them learn how to work one-on-one with a deaf person. They need to know those things.”
Bridging the gap
Roger Williams, director of mental health services for the deaf with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, also conducts sensitivity training for law enforcement, most recently in Spartanburg.
In his presentations, Williams said he explains how to interact with a deaf person, which includes paying attention to facial expressions and body language. He said a common misconception is that all deaf people can read lips, so in his sessions he explains the different ways deaf people communicate and how officers can determine which method the person prefers.
“We tell police officers that most deaf people have met a hearing person, but most hearing people have not met a deaf person,” Williams said. “In Spartanburg, I’d say most officers have come into contact with a deaf person because of the School for the Deaf and the Blind.”
Officer Machelle Thomas is one of them. She first learned sign language through music when she was in middle school, and she used to sign in churches in the deaf community.
Thomas, a school resource officer with the Spartanburg Police Department, went through Spartanburg Community College’s American Sign Language (ASL) program so she could become more proficient in communicating with deaf residents.
“As a police officer, it’s good to be able to communicate with all different types of people through whatever language they speak,” Thomas said. “I wanted to have a better understanding of what (deaf people) want to tell police or answer questions about things they need to know.”
Thomas said she's used her ASL skills many times in her career, including acting as an interpreter at some of the schools where she's worked when a student has had deaf parents.
Lt. Alan Bledsoe, the former Woodruff police chief who is now with the Spartanburg Police Department, also has studied ASL. He said initially he needed to fulfill a foreign language requirement for his degree, and he decided to take ASL classes at Spartanburg Community College because of the large number of deaf individuals in Spartanburg.
“When I was looking to pick what I wanted to take as a foreign language, I got to thinking, ‘We have a lot of interaction with the deaf community, and it’s very typical for officers to get out with folks in the deaf community and nobody is around to be able to translate anything,’” Bledsoe said. “Sometimes it’s stressful situations where writing just isn’t going to cut it, because they just don’t have the ability to write at that time. If you’ve got somebody who even has a rudimentary grasp of ASL, it can help bridge a gap.”
But officers such as Thomas and Bledsoe remain more the exception than the rule at most law enforcement agencies, though the Spartanburg Sheriff's Office has a lieutenant on staff who knows ASL, according to Lt. Kevin Bobo. Becoming an intermediate user of ASL takes a couple years of study, said Denise Huff, program director of ASL/interpreting at Spartanburg Community College.
If a person wants to become a certified interpreter in any language, including ASL, a four-year degree is required, followed by a rigorous general certification process, Huff said.
“I would compare it to a CPA certification in that it takes a degree, some practice and passing some very hard tests,” Huff said. “Using ASL is just like speaking Spanish or any other language — you can be fluent, but there isn’t necessarily a certification to show anyone.”
In South Carolina, there are only 73 certified interpreters who specialize in ASL, according to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Eleven of them are in Spartanburg County.
Even if someone isn't planning to become a certified interpreter, becoming proficient in ASL requires constant practice and interaction with deaf men and women, Huff said. Students in the Spartanburg Community College program are offered many opportunities to practice ASL through events where they can interact with deaf residents.
While the School for the Deaf and the Blind gives Spartanburg County better access to interpreters than many other counties in the state, the overall shortage concerns many in the deaf community, particularly as it relates to law enforcement.
Sherry Williams, an ASL professor at Spartanburg Community College who is also deaf, said she's less worried about communication problems during minor incidents than she is about those during major ones.
“I think the problem with the deaf community and police officers isn’t when we’re stopped while driving, but if someone is arrested for something,” Williams said through an interpreter. “They may not know why they’re being arrested.”
And the likelihood of finding an interpreter in the middle of the night to help in that situation is low, added Roger Williams, Sherry's husband.
For that reason, the Williamses are working with state Rep. Rita Allison on an interpreter bill. The bill would require all state agencies — including law enforcement, the courts, the Department of Corrections and school systems — to hire certified interpreters.
The Americans with Disabilities Act only requires a "qualified interpreter," rather than a certified one, be available in courts.
Roger Williams acknowledged finding certified interpreters remains a challenge, given the numbers. No specialized training is required to interpret for law enforcement or the courts, he said, but it's generally assumed an interpreter will have had a few years of experience in those settings before taking on "high-stakes" cases.
Despite the challenges, Williams, a certified interpreter, said it's critical to ensure deaf residents have an interpreter available when they most need one.
He recalled an incident in which he was contacted by a deaf person to act as an interpreter for the person's court case. But he said when he arrived at the courthouse, he was told the defendant had already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to time served. Williams said the person had no idea what was going on because there wasn’t a certified interpreter in the court.
The ADA states "effective communication" must be available for deaf people, but the language is too vague and could mean anything, said Karena Poupard, an instructor at Spartanburg Community College and certified ASL interpreter.