HILLSBORO • Thomas Horejes was driving home from a high school dance when the flash of a police officer’s blue and red lights filled his car.
He pulled over, and tried to adjust his hearing aid to hear the commands coming from a microphone on the police car. He then rapidly pointed to his ears and extended his hands away from them, shaking his head to try to tell the officer he was hard of hearing.
“The next thing I know, two more police cars show up, and two officers approach my car with their guns drawn,” he said Wednesday. “As soon as they saw my hearing aid, they understood I was deaf. But not all of us wear hearing aids, and it might not always be that obvious.”
Horejes, 38, recalled the moment Wednesday for about 50 deputies and commanders at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department during training set up by Sheriff David Marshak. It is the latest in a growing number of police departments to undergo training from Deaf Inc., a nonprofit that provides interpreting services and raises awareness of issues about the deaf and hard of hearing.
A grant from the Jefferson Foundation paid for the training, which will include bringing Jefferson County deputies to the nonprofit’s Webster Groves office to teach those who are deaf or hard of hearing how to better interact with the police.
The topic has been particularly timely, after a trooper in North Carolina tried to stop a 29-year-old deaf man for speeding and fatally shot him after a high-speed chase in August 2016.
“Regardless of whether it was their fault or not, it creates an incredible fear in the deaf community,” said Horejes, the group’s executive director.
Some departments, such as Washington’s, have specialized units for policing the deaf.
About 150,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing people live in the St. Louis area — policed by dozens of different departments, Deaf Inc. community advocate Devon Whitmore noted.
Locally, Robert Kim, described as “profoundly deaf,” sued Bridgeton alleging that two police officers beat him and used a Taser to subdue him in 2012 after he called for help with a flat tire and fell into diabetic shock. The city and officers denied the claims, and the suit was dismissed by all parties in December 2014.
That lawsuit prompted Deaf Inc. to create a training program. Officers from Frontenac, Chesterfield, Webster Groves and Richmond Heights have gone through the training.
Jefferson County sought the training after a deaf resident complained about an officer’s response to a property damage call. Even though the investigation proved officers acted appropriately, Marshak wanted to ensure all officers would do so as well, Capt. Gary Higginbotham said.
Deaf Inc. also helped the department update its protocols, Higginbotham said.
“Fear causes a lot of these issues,” he said. “Fear on the part of the deaf person and fear on the part of the officer especially if the nature of the conversation is complex.”
Deaf Inc. leaders hope to also train firefighters, said Whitmore, who joined Horejes during Wednesday’s training.
Interpreters translated their sign language for the room of officers.
“A police officer could be screaming commands at a deaf person, and, if they can’t see them, the deaf person doesn’t know it,” Whitmore said.
Officers seemed surprised when the men told them only about 30 percent of the English language can be read on lips.
“Imagine reading someone their Miranda rights,” Whitmore said. “We don’t want [a crime] to be waived for a technicality like that.”
The men explained how frightening it is for deaf people who use their hands to communicate to be handcuffed, and officers should assure a deaf person they will have the opportunity to communicate once more.
Whitmore also said many people with hearing problems also have balance issues. For him, his balance is worse at night — which could make him appear intoxicated during a traffic stop.
The men walked the officers through several scenarios to help them better understand when it’s appropriate to call for an interpreter — which can take as long as an hour and cost $50 to $60 an hour. Providing them is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the absence of an interpreter in certain situations can lead to a case’s being dismissed. Routine traffic stops rarely require an interpreter; domestic violence and arrest situations do.
Other lessons were simpler: Don’t knock on a deaf person’s door. Ring the bell, as most are connected to lights in the house. Look at the deaf person, not the interpreter in conversation. Don’t blind a deaf person with a flashlight, because they can’t see your lips.
But Horejes and Whitmore also urged officers to understand that the deaf and hard of hearing need to be held accountable. Just as police learn about the deaf culture, the deaf should learn about police culture.
For example, sign language can appear threatening and animated, so the nonprofit urges its clients to limit their hand gestures to a smaller frame and keep their hands visible. And while it’s common for deaf people to touch others to get their attention, it’s never good to touch a police officer unexpectedly.
That lesson resonated with Deputy Jonas Allen, whose mind flashed to a moment about 15 years ago. He was serving a fugitive warrant at a home when a woman ran out of a bedroom and put her hands on his partner’s shoulders. The suspect told the officers she was deaf, but if he hadn’t, Allen said, he would have feared his partner was about to be assaulted.
Allen and almost every officer spent about 20 minutes thanking Horejes and Whitmore at the end of the hour-long training and sharing a universal sign: a handshake.
Robert Patrick of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.