REDONDO BEACH — Late one evening, a police officer here spotted a man near Hawthorne Boulevard hiding something--possibly a weapon--under his jacket. When the man ignored repeated orders to halt, the officer drew his revolver.
It turned out that the man was just hiding an open can of beer.
He didn't stop because he never heard the police officer's orders. He is deaf.
On another occasion, Redondo Beach police answered a call about an apparently distraught man. Baffled by his behavior, they decided to take the man to Harbor General Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
Again, it was a case of police misunderstanding the behavior of a deaf person.
The two incidents were cited recently by Sgt. Avery Richey of the Redondo Beach Police Department to illustrate the problems of communication between the deaf and the police--problems that the department's Deaf Awareness Center is working to overcome.
Operating on an annual budget of $52,000--80% supplied by a two-year state grant and 20% by the Redondo Beach Police Department--the center provides deaf awareness seminars to police officers and offers crime prevention and safety classes to deaf people.
Although the center operates in Redondo Beach, it serves the entire South Bay and occasionally conducts classes in other areas.
An estimated 8% to 10% of Americans are deaf or hearing-impaired, and many of those people find communication with the police difficult, according to Lori Hillman, the center's coordinator.
Helping deaf people and police communicate with each other is a "unique concept that has been ignored for quite a while," Hillman said, adding that the Redondo program is the only one of its kind in the state.
Capt. Ray Graham said the program was one of several suggested by the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning in a list of grant possibilities.
"We saw an opportunity to expand our crime prevention unit, and we applied for the grant," Graham said. "The center has heightened our awareness of the deaf and reminds us that there are deaf people out there."
Deaf awareness is not part of a police recruit's initial training, Graham said. "The need is there, but it's a matter of priorities. Recruits are so busy learning about the different aspects of law enforcement, there's not enough time to emphasize that."
To communicate with a deaf person, police officers are advised to get the person's attention with a visual gesture before speaking, to look directly at the person and maintain eye contact while speaking, and to speak slowly and clearly while, at the same time, showing facial and bodily expression.
Officers are also taught the basics of sign language--not enough to carry on a conversation, but enough to ask for identification, car registration and other information.
In its classes for the deaf, the center tells them how to communicate and work with police. They are told that when confronted by an officer, they should use slow, deliberate motions to indicate in sign language that they are deaf. They are also cautioned not to run or to make any aggressive or surprising motions.
The bulk of the center's workload, however, is offering deaf people--through sign language--the same classes in self-defense, child safety, neighborhood watch, personal safety, home security and other aspects of crime prevention that are offered to the hearing public through many local police departments. The center also offers six-week sign-language courses to anyone interested.
Some of the suggestions presented to deaf people differ from those offered in similar courses for the hearing, Hillman said. For example, in an emergency both the hearing and the deaf are urged to call the 911 emergency number, but while the hearing are told to give the operator certain information, the deaf are instructed to scream into the phone--assuming that no telephone device equipped for the deaf is available. The emergency number's tracing capability gives police the caller's location.
Several of the center's participants say they have benefited from the classes.
Kevin O'Banion of Hawthorne, who is deaf and has taken part in nearly all of the center's programs, said he learned how to make his home safer from burglars, and he now watches his neighbors' houses for anyone suspicious or unfamiliar.
Sallie Korach of Redondo Beach said she values the training she received, but hopes she will never need to use it. She attended the center's course on using tear gas spray for self-protection. With a fee of $5, it is the only class offered by the center that is not free.
Hillman said the content of crime-prevention classes varies, depending on what participants want to learn. People from high-crime areas, she said, are often more interested in rape and assault prevention. Those from more affluent cities are concerned about burglary prevention.
Hillman and her assistant coordinator, Linda Cote, teach the classes with the help of volunteers at the center's rented office in the American Legion Building on Camino Real.
The center's state grant expires Sept. 30, and Hillman said she is looking for other sources of funding to continue. She said she would prefer private funding, but if none is available she hopes the city will pick up the entire budget.