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December 16, 2003

TWIN CITIES: Making connections

From: St. Paul Pioneer Press, MN - Dec 16, 2003

Pioneer Press

A flutter of expressive hands greeted Minneapolis police Sgt. Catherine Johnson during a community meeting at the Bread of Life Lutheran Church for the Deaf.

And for good reason. Johnson had come to the recent meeting at the South Minneapolis church to talk about something important to deaf people: the use of handcuffs.

When a deaf person who speaks using sign language is handcuffed behind the back, that person has been silenced. Johnson wanted to explain why police officers employ handcuffs, sometimes on innocent people, when it's necessary to maintain safety at the scene of an incident or crime.

And she did it by telling a story so powerful that it provoked a dramatic silence that was felt, not heard.

She talked about Melissa Schmidt, the Minneapolis officer who was shot and mortally wounded a year ago by a woman she had decided not to handcuff. Johnson explained that Schmidt, her former partner, had made a decision based on instinct, experience and simple human decency. Schmidt knew the woman and did not believe she had a firearm hidden on her body.

Schmidt must have felt the situation was safe enough to respect the woman's dignity as she was being accompanied into a public bathroom, Johnson said. The results were tragic.

The story resonated with the audience in a special way. Many of those attending the meeting knew Schmidt, who was the first officer to participate in what was then called the Deaf SAFE program when it was created in 2000.

"Melissa's still here, in this room," Johnson told the audience. "And she's still teaching us."

The response was quaking hands held high in the air — the equivalent of applause.

The grant that supported the Minneapolis Deaf SAFE program ran out some time ago. But the program's creator, Wendy DeVore, a former police officer and the daughter of deaf parents, recently opened a St. Paul consulting business called "Community Solutions: Crime Prevention and Safety for People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing."

The meeting on arrest and detainment is part of a larger curriculum of programs that have two purposes: To help deaf people deal with police and to help police understand how to serve deaf citizens.

DeVore has conducted programs for deaf groups around the state, including classes at Highland Park and Humboldt high schools in St. Paul, and she also conducts training programs for police officers and cadets.

The school programs in St. Paul have provided a way to involve school liaison officers, said St. Paul police Sgt. Douglas Holtz, who has been working with DeVore for three years in an effort to acquaint the city's officers with the deaf community.

Holtz, who took classes in American Sign Language while a student at the University of Minnesota, said money isn't available to support a formal training program for officers.

"But I've been given permission to be a liaison for our department and I think we're making some progress," he said.

Indeed, DeVore said she worries that funding for community programs like the one she conducts is drying up.

"There aren't a lot of programs like this," she said. "And the deaf community is hungry for information."

DeVore said she also tries to raise "deaf awareness" with officers.

"For instance, the deaf community feels very strongly about not using their children as interpreters," DeVore said. "Frankly, sometimes the children are the reason they've called the police.

"But more importantly, the emotional content at a situation where the police have been called is often too overwhelming for a child to handle appropriately," she said. "A lot of officers don't understand that."

But many do, said Johnson, who participated in the early Deaf SAFE program when she was an officer. Now a sergeant, she brought officer Karen Green along to participate in a recent program.

"Being a sergeant means I have about this much authority," Johnson told her deaf audience while holding up her hand with her thumb and finger separated by the gap of an inch.

"But the cops who work for me in the precinct I'm in will understand your perspective," she promised. "Maybe that's not a big step, but it's a start."


For information about Community Solutions: Crime Prevention and Safety for People Who Are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, call 651-265-2428.

The nonprofit organization is housed in the offices of Lifetrack Resources at 709 University Ave. W., St. Paul.

© 2003 Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.