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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane police work to break down communication barriers with the hard-of-hearing at coffee event

At Coffee with a Cop, Spokane police Officer Dale Wells and Nexus deaf interpreter Jak Oritt, center, use sign language to communicate Thursday with citizen Ernie Berestoff, at right, at the Starbucks on North Ruby Street. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Police Department hosted a Coffee with a Cop event on Thursday aimed to break down communication barriers between police and the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in Spokane.

“Sometimes there’s a stigma and a disconnect,” said Sean Barr, who is deaf and was one of the community members who attended Thursday’s event at the Starbucks on Ruby Street.

Barr grew up in Southern California in a law enforcement family. Now, Barr owns a business that outfits emergency vehicles.

“I can see from both worlds,” Barr said.

Police officers are often guarded and think of their safety first, he said. If an officer shines a light in the face of someone who is hard of hearing, they can’t see the officer’s lips moving, which cuts off communication, Barr said.

Sean’s father, Dave Barr, taught at the police academy in Orange County, California, for 38 years and focused on dealing with individuals who have disabilities.

They perceive the world differently, and it’s hard for the hearing community to understand that world, Dave Barr said.

“The more police are in tune with the community, the more they understand the needs of the community,” Dave Barr said.

Coffee with a Cop is a series of events in which Spokane police officers and community members connect on neutral ground at local Starbucks.

Interpreters were provided by the nonprofit Nexus, which provides services to people experiencing deafness or hearing loss.

Nexus also provides communication cards to the hard of hearing to keep in their vehicles to help them better communicate with law enforcement.

“When you can’t communicate with somebody, there are a lot of fears that come from lack of understanding,” said Spokane police Officer Dale Wells.

Wells was the only officer who knows sign language who was able to attend the event.

“Both of my wife’s parents are deaf,” Wells said.

While he learned sign language to communicate with his in-laws, he has been working on becoming more fluent and plans to take classes this fall.

“I’m not perfect, but I do what I can to bridge those gaps,” Wells said.

When a person who is hard of hearing calls 911, communication is difficult from the beginning, Wells said.

They use a video system to talk to a translator who then relays the information to dispatch, he explained.

“From the very start, you’re already going through a third party for dispatch,” Wells said.

On scene, all officers carry notebooks, but communication is slow and often requires going back for clarification, he said.

“A lot of times, it comes down to pen and paper and just slowly writing,” Wells said.

When an officer or translator can step in with sign language, that also brings challenges.

“When I sign in the dark, I have to bring an extra officer just for me,” Wells explained.

A fellow officer has to watch Wells’ back so he can focus on signing and to shine a light on his hands and face.

Often, communication barriers affect family members of victims and suspects, Wells said.

A mother, for example, might be fearful because you can’t explain why their child is being arrested or what procedure to follow or other useful information, Wells said.

“We struggle,” Wells said. “We don’t know how to speak, they don’t know how to speak, and so I truly believe everybody is doing the best they can. But a neutral field like this is about breaking down barriers.”