When Allison Timmons was a uniformed patrol officer in Columbia several years ago, she occasionally dealt with people who were hearing-impaired. In those situations, she'd reach for a pen and paper to begin the laborious process of writing notes.
"I remembered how difficult it was to communicate with them," Timmons said. "It's frustrating on both parties when you can't communicate.
"Even a small amount of information would have been so helpful."
Timmons, now a plainclothes officer, sat in a classroom recently at the Howard County Police Department's Education and Training Division. Surrounded by fellow officers, she watched an instructor who gestured rapidly in American Sign Language and listened to the interpreter's translation. In front of Timmons was a packet of papers illustrating the basics of sign language and finger spelling.
Timmons was among about a dozen Howard police officers who recently set aside their usual work routines to complete three day-long sessions in sign language and strategies for dealing with the deaf and hearing-impaired. The training was paid by a nearly $24,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation, Howard's largest philanthropic foundation. The department also used the grant to provide a shorter deaf awareness training session to a recent class of recruits at its police academy.
Since 2003, police Officer Karen Wilson has acted as the department's liaison to the deaf community. Wilson, who has studied sign language for several years, said the department wants "to kind of close that gap, so we both understand each other a little bit more, so that there's not that fear, that misconception."
Howard's programs join efforts by other police agencies across the state to foster more effective outreach to the deaf and hearing-impaired. The Montgomery County Police Department has five officers skilled in sign language, spokesman Derek Baliles said. In Charles County, the sheriff's office used grant funding this year to sponsor two days of deaf awareness training for about 100 deputies and police officers from across the state.
"It's a good thing to do, to keep the lines of communication open," said Capt. Joe Montminy, the Charles County sheriff's executive assistant. The Maryland Sheriffs' Association, working with advocates for the deaf, has developed motor vehicle visor cards informing police that hearing-impaired drivers are entitled to an interpreter under federal law.
It's not unusual for area police officers to encounter the deaf or hearing-impaired on traffic stops or during police calls, particularly because two large schools -- the Maryland School for the Deaf in east Columbia and Gallaudet University in Washington -- are in the region, said Lt. Mark Joyce, commander of Howard's training division.
Joyce recalled his experience several years ago when he responded to a distress call from a deaf woman whose husband, also deaf, was threatening suicide. Even with backup officers on the scene, Joyce struggled to calm the situation.
"We were all at a disadvantage at that point simply because we couldn't communicate," he said.
Instructor Ron Fenicle, who was born deaf, had his own story about being pulled over recently in Boston by a police officer, who assumed, incorrectly, that Fenicle could lip-read. At one point the officer grabbed Fenicle's shirt to make him pay attention.
"You could see he didn't have a lot of patience," Fenicle said as his wife, Abbie, interpreted.
Deaf and hearing-impaired people understand that touching to communicate is vital, but it should be done in ways that aren't demeaning, he said.
During his class, Fenicle showed the officers some basic words and phrases in sign language. He also shared aspects of deaf culture. Because movement and gestures are part of their language, deaf people might want to get out of their cars to communicate with police during a traffic stop, something police could interpret as a threatening move, he said. In complicated circumstances, police should rely on trained interpreters and not just turn to family members, especially children. "You can't legally force anyone to interpret," he reminded officers.
During class, there were glimpses of the cultural divide between hearing and deaf people. As Fenicle led the class in reviewing sign language for telling time, one officer asked whether there were signs that corresponded to the military practice of using a 24-hour clock.
"No," Fenicle answered. "Deaf people aren't allowed in the military."
At one point during the session, Fenicle divided the officers into small groups to practice sign language with modified card and board games. The classroom was almost as quiet as a library as Fenicle and his wife urged the officers to play the games without talking.
Alexander Garthoff, a patrol officer in Columbia, signed up for the sessions because he wanted to hone his basic sign language skills. He said he uses signing skills about as often as Spanish.
"When you show [deaf people] you can sign a little, you see their eyes light up, and their whole body language changes," Garthoff said. "It's very good."