The Dalhart, Texas, police department has sworn in the Lone Star State’s first deaf police officer, making her only the nation’s second deaf law-enforcing crime-fighter.
Paired with a field training officer (FTO), newly hired police Officer Erica Trevino, 25 (shown above), will suit up and hit the streets of Dalhart on April 14, 2018.
Officer Trevino’s swearing-in ceremony was held on March 30. Raising her hand as is custom when oaths are taken, Trevino jutted her right hand while using her left to pledge her oath with American Sign Language (ASL) cues as her mom, dad, and her three-year-old daughter witnessed Dalhart police Chief David Conner administer the proceeding.
Initially, she pursued her dream of being a military police officer despite being born deaf. Unfortunately, the Department of Defense declined her aspirations because of her auditory disability. Trevino didn’t let that discourage her, though. Instead, she pushed harder — obtained a baccalaureate degree in forensic science, had a child, and maintained her focus on police work while honing a unique set of skills.
What is the one word Trevino never liked? No. She pushed and pushed and pushed until she found herself before the Dalhart police chief who said “yes” to her application materials. Chief Conner told media reporters, “After talking to her and realizing the type of woman that she is, it just seemed like a natural fit. Her disadvantage was not a concern to me.”
Officer Trevino brings to the Dalhart police force the ability to speak five different sign languages, including Spanish and Japanese. She also speaks Spanish verbally, despite shortcomings of not having the ability of hearing organically. Trevino compensates somewhat with her candid realization and approach to the significant perils posed in police work. She knows she has her work cut out for her, yet does not seem at all daunted.
My department never had a police officer who was skilled in American Sign Language. When the situation warranted— dealing with a deaf citizen — the workaround was passing pad and pen back and forth. It was not a sophisticated method of messaging, but it was what we had and it worked, albeit at the pace of an arthritic sloth. Eventually, we had a detective attend ASL courses at the university, so he was our go-to guy in a pinch. Only problem was, that ASL-equipped detective worked day-shift, leaving midnight-shift cops like me in the dark (in more ways than one). The pads/pens method was our street technology in terms of communicating with those hard of hearing.
As Chief Conner put it, “With Officer Trevino being here that’s going to be a tremendous asset for those who are hard of hearing or deaf. She will be able to communicate and assist us in that realm as well.”
I explain this to highlight how Officer Trevino is a huge commodity for a police entity encountering any deaf individual requiring police assistance. However, concerns over how a deaf cop performs is intriguing, and a cochlear implant is essentially a partner enabling requisite communication in the police trade.
Cochlear implants. After viewing any media coverage you may have seen or heard, Officer Trevino does have some capacity to hear. Above her left ear is embedded a hearing-aid instrument known as a cochlear implant. Although with some limitation, that device enables the wearer to process auditory signals, thereby enhancing sound reception.
The National Institutes of Health explains cochlear implants as follows: “A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing. The implant consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin.”
Everything she says, she signs. Everything she signs, she says. As a deaf human, hand signaling to communicate is ideal. But it is only useful when it is mutually understood. In the latter part of my police career, my autistic daughter’s developmental delay included a nonverbal nature. It became necessary to learn sign language. From the dynamics of ASL and the nuances of those who cannot hear or speak, reading lips is an often overlooked but essential ingredient.
As a blind person has increased auditory sensation, a deaf and/or mute person relies on lip-reading, to which a response is offered in whatever capacity possible. I suspect Officer Trevino has this trait among her arsenal of communication reliance.
Officer safety factors. As a police officer, Trevino must get accustomed to not tying up her hands. Instead, keeping them poised and at the ready, and not necessarily within reach of a bad guy who may seize her hands or arms as a controlling/assaultive tactic, is a crucial condition.
Whether as an FTO or a deaf police officer, one of my gravest concerns would be for a suspect figuring out that a cop’s weakness is the wearing of a cochlear implant. That could serve as a potentially advantageous factor for a bad guy yanking the tethered wiring of the surgically implanted hearing instrument. Male cops shave or close-groom their hair, while female officers do whatever is necessary to shorten (or bun) any hair length. It minimizes (or precludes) the potential of a suspect pulling hair for leverage.
From what I read, cochlear implants enhance hearing capacity, although not ideally equivalent to organic auditory ability. On the City of Dalhart Police Department page was written: “She is profoundly deaf and uses a cochlear implant to hear. Her level of hearing is unlike ours. No, her hearing is far from ‘normal’ even with the use of the cochlear implant.”
As Officer Trevino acknowledged, she’d have to be extra careful of her surroundings, especially behind her. Trevino said, “I have to learn how to watch my back, obviously, but then every officer … has to learn to do that. I have to learn to trust my partner, trust myself and speak clearly so that people will understand me.”
Not all criminals are bumbling idiots clumsily and noisily marking their presence and approach. Some are like phantoms and stealthy on their feet. The latter serves an ultra threat to anyone who is lacking auditory efficiency, especially to a law enforcement officer whose service weapon is automatically part of the equation.
“Ms. Trevino DID pass a hearing test. She paid for the test on her own prior to applying for the position. Just because you have a cochlear implant does not mean you are no longer deaf.”
As cops, we are trained to maintain discipline, analyze, assess, reassess, and otherwise have a supercharged crystal ball. Often, extraneous details arise, and preparation is crucial. In Officer Trevino’s case as a cochlear implant carrier, getting close to an MRI is a no-no. Besides frying her device, it will abruptly deny all hearing for her when the need for sound is paramount and critical. It becomes a Kryptonite-like lesson in that she can not get too close without sacrificing her police efficacy to subdue a suspect who happens to be raising Cain in a radiology facility or hospital imaging unit.
The skinny behind cochlear implants/MRIs is magnetic force conflicts, generally.
I know: How often can that realistically happen? For a cop, once is way too much, especially when lives are at stake and a suspect recognizes you are reserving distance and capitalizes on that space. Escape may be imminent for the bad guy.
After listening to a few audio-video pieces, Officer Trevino’s speech is relatively clear to me — knowing some sign language and lip-reading helped me follow along. But what about the suspect whose Miranda rights or other legal jargon read in the course of investigation? I can foresee defense attorneys using unclear speech patterns as fodder to get their clients off the hook or otherwise malign the criminal justice process. Harsh subject matter but, in the long run, these are fair considerations for Officer Trevino, her police cohorts, and the citizens.
Indeed, Officer Trevino has her work cut out for her. Per Chief Conner, agency protocol developed especially for Trevino is to send her police calls-for-service also in the form of text message. In-car laptops afford the same advantage where call details are posted and read. Moreover, the plan is to always have another cop with her while on-duty.
I harbor no love for naysayers. I’ve been at the ugly end of finger-wagging individuals often enough. Yet I am a realist and, as such, foresee an arduous road ahead for Officer Trevino. At the same time, I do admire her tenacity, determination, focus, and fortitude in reaching for the stars and coming away with a justice shield. Some might say that is perfect justice in an imperfect world which sometimes deals a terrible hand.
A City of Dalhart PD official states, “Ms. Trevino DID pass a hearing test. She paid for the test on her own prior to applying for the position. Just because you have a cochlear implant does not mean you are no longer deaf.”
Nevertheless, it seems Trevino played her cards right and Dalhart Police Chief Conner saw a would-be cop’s convictions when the chips appeared down. I get the feeling Trevino will not relent in perfecting her game and fine-tuning her skill sets.
After explaining how she was not going to let anyone tell her what she can and cannot do, Officer Trevino has reached her latest rite of passage, saying, “It’s been a long, hard path but … here I am!”
Yet a rather telling utterance she shared with the public via a podium of media mics followed: “I’m not going to let anyone tell me what I can and cannot do. So I decided to become a police officer and I have a lot of people that still now tell me now that they don’t think I can, but I can’t hear them so that’s okay.”
Among police forums, some are opposed and some are in favor of Officer Trevino policing the streets. Deaf or not, lives are always on the line in police work. How do you weigh in on this hire? Is there an equal employment dynamic here? Political correctness? What about liabilities?
Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens piece is used with permission.
(photo credit, homepage and article image: KFDA News)