St. Kate’s students help change the way St. Paul police make arrests.
What started as a class project for three St. Catherine University students led to St. Paul police changing its policy on how St. Paul police officers are to communicate with people who are deaf.
The students, who just completed their second year in the St. Paul university’s American Sign Language/interpreting program, raised their concerns in a letter to the police chief at the end of December.
Catherine Fensom, was one of three students in the American Sign Language/Interpreting program at St. Catherine University who wrote to the St. Paul police chief about their concerns about the department’s policy for communicating with people who are deaf. The police department met with community members and recently changed their policy, as a result of the letter from the students.
“Interactions with the police can be stressful and difficult, and clear communication is important,” wrote the three students, Catherine Fensom, Liza Leja and Pat Schmatz. “The potential for misunderstanding is high when the interpreter has limited language skills.”
Deputy Police Chief Paul Iovino said they immediately got to work after hearing from the students. They met with an official from the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, along with representatives from six associations who work with deaf people, to discuss policy suggestions. They implemented many of them this month in a revised policy, Iovino said.
The previous policy said an officer must make a “qualified” interpreter available before taking a statement from a deaf person who is under arrest, but the revised policy specifies the interpreter must be nationally certified. Officers were previously required to provide victims or witnesses with a pen and paper or other way to communicate. The new policy says they may provide them an interpreter.
Iovino applauded the St. Kate’s students for taking their classroom learning and applying it to the community to bring about change.
“It’s not always flattering to read that we have an outdated policy that deserves and needs immediate attention, but we immediately wanted to be very good stewards with the policy,” he said. “… “We do want to make sure we’re providing trusted service with respect to all communities and this gets us closer to continuing to do that.”
One of the groups involved in providing feedback to police, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), said in a statement Tuesday they “have a number of concerns with the policy and are working with our communities to develop a public response.”
The police department agreed to change its policy in 2013 as part of a $93,450 settlement in a federal lawsuit filed by Doug Bahl, who was deaf.
In 2006, a St. Paul police officer pulled Bahl over for a traffic violation and Bahl requested to communicate with him in writing. Bahl said in his lawsuit that the officer sprayed him with a chemical irritant, dragged him out of his car and beat him.
Bahl’s attorney, Rick Macpherson, said Tuesday he noticed the newest policy change emphasizes using certified interpreters. That issue is at the center of a federal lawsuit Macpherson filed on behalf of Catrina Hooper, who is deaf, against the St. Paul police department last summer.
Hooper asked for a qualified American Sign Language interpreter when she attempted to file domestic assault charges and was provided with an officer who is not certified in ASL, her lawsuit says.
Requiring that police use a certified interpreter is “a good step forward” in the policy, Macpherson said, but he said that was supposed to happen after the Bahl settlement agreement.
“Perhaps if they had adopted this policy after the Bahl agreement … Ms. Hooper might not have had the problem she experienced,” said Macpherson, who is with the Minnesota Disability Law Center.
Hooper’s lawsuit with St. Paul is ongoing. The city denies that the officer who was provided to Hooper was not qualified as an interpreter, according to a filing in the case.
Hooper also filed suit against Ramsey County and the sheriff’s office, saying she was not provided an ASL interpreter in the jail when she requested one, and they reached a $40,000 settlement last year. She had been arrested on a misdemeanor warrant, according to the city’s legal response to the suit.
Iovino said the policy change wasn’t related to the Hooper case, though “the timing was certainly appropriate.”
For a project for their deaf culture class, Fensom said she and her classmates decided, “with the climate in today’s society regarding police officers, we thought it would be interesting to look at relations between police and the deaf community.”
To begin with, Fensom, Leja and Schmatz told the police department in their letter that the name of the policy — “Persons Handicapped in Communication” — was “startling” and “(m)any people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing do not consider themselves handicapped.”
Iovino said they didn’t realize the wording was outdated. The new policy is called “Effective Communication with Persons Who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Deaf/Blind, Have Hearing Loss and/or for Whom English is a Second Language.”
People from the deaf community weren’t involved in the policy change last time, according to the police department. The students wrote they had “learned about the long history of hearing people making decisions for and about deaf people” and they urged the police department to seek the community’s input.
Marie Koehler, Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services regional manager, said her agency helped connect the police department with people in the community and co-hosted a meeting.
“St. Kate’s students started a conversation that will make our communities safer by improving understanding between police and people who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing,” Koehler said.
The group HEARD met with St. Paul police in mid-March and provided some feedback. The police department said they would follow-up and provide opportunities to comment on the draft policy, according to HEARD’s statement, but they were surprised in May to see an email from St. Paul police with the final policy.
“The version as it stands has a number of deeply concerning issues that will lead to miscommunication and rights violations,” HEARD said in a statement.
Iovino said last week that the document is “fluid” and “if things evolve … we’re going to change it again.”
The police department has distributed information department-wide about their revised policy.
Fensom said she and her classmates weren’t expecting anything to come from their letter.
“All change starts small,” said Fensom, who is from Moorhead, Minn. “It’s really exciting that the police department took our suggestions and implemented them, and hopefully this will be the start of more connections between them and the deaf community.”
Source: Twin Cities Pioneer Press, MARA H. GOTTFRIED
Image credit: Undated courtesy photo, circa May 2018, of Catherine Fensom.
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