FREDERICK, Md. – From age 3, when he remembers watching "Cops" at his grandmother's house, Robert Harris has been fascinated with police work.
This spring, as the Frederick Police Department's first deaf student intern, the 17-year-old has proven himself more than an eager learner. He has also been a teacher to the officers, firefighters and rescue workers he's met.
And having opened their eyes to deaf culture, Harris is now designing a visual communication tool to help first responders interact with hearing-impaired people and non-English speakers in Frederick, home to the Maryland School for the Deaf.
Chief Kim C. Dine said Harris's contributions exceeded his expectations for an internship program designed to strengthen connections between police and the community of deaf and hard-of-hearing residents. There are at least 2,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing residents in the city and surrounding county, including the 340 MSD students.
"We didn't know what a wonderful person we were getting," Dine said. "He's very patient with us, he's very smart and he's very excited, so he has energized us and our training staff."
Harris radiates enthusiasm with his infectious smile and rapid-fire signing. His enthusiasm is also obvious in the photos he proudly shows of a police training exercise in which he played the role of an uncooperative subject for a class of recruits.
Their job was to calm and question him but the small, wiry Harris wasn't easily captured. When he finally was, after a chase involving fake-out moves and overturned furniture, the recruits learned that handcuffing a deaf person behind his back hampers sign-language dialogue.
Harris, an Eagle Scout who graduated from MSD with a 3.0-plus grade point average, said he enjoyed playing a troublemaker.
"I've never been arrested, so it was neat to have the experience of being cuffed in the back and realizing, 'Wow, it really is hard to communicate,"' he said through an interpreter.
Harris, who teaches introductory American Sign Language classes, showed the officers how to sign a few basic phrases including "Good morning," "Good evening" and "ticket." He also taught them to look directly at the deaf person they're talking to and not at the sign-language interpreter.
Interpreters aren't usually present in the first stages of an arrest or emergency, though, so many police officers and EMTs carry commercially available visual aids. Among the most common are pocket-sized, laminated cards that fold out to reveal brightly colored drawings that allow a user, by pointing, to communicate one's nationality, physical description, injury or complaint.
Harris interviewed local emergency services leaders and used their recommendations to devise a different kind of pocket communicator. It would be a tabbed flip chart with fewer, but larger, images narrowly focused on basic information they need when they first arrive on a scene.
Harris said the Law Enforcement Visual Language Translator, published by leading manufacturer Kwikpoint/GAIA LLC of Alexandria, Va., would benefit from symbols to help medical personnel.
"This doesn't have anything EMT-related," Harris said. "The one that we're working on now is going to have bigger images, easier to point to. It's going to be more related to not only police but also related to firemen. We will have a house diagram, a diagram of a body so you can show where you're injured or hurt or if you had a heart attack — things of that nature."
Kwikpoint offers a separate Medical Visual Language Translator filled with images to help communicate symptoms, and it is designing a version for firefighters, said Scott Whitney, vice president of sales and business development. Whitney also said that while Kwikpoint has the capability of making spiral-bound flip charts, it has found that users prefer the fold-out version.
Harris aims to design a visual aid that combines the essential information that police, firefighters and EMTs must gather immediately. He said images on existing products include "things that are going to be talked about later, that an interpreter is going to be present for. What we are focusing more on are things you need NOW."
Using his artistic skills, Harris aims to finish the flip chart in July before leaving his Middletown home for the Rochester Institute of Technology to study criminal justice and computer graphics.
Dine said the flip chart, and the deaf internship program, could be replicated by other police and emergency-services agencies around the country.
"The challenge of police work is that the communities that need it most, in terms of communication, sometimes that is the biggest challenge," Dine said. "I frankly think that through this partnership, we are a better police department."
He and MSD Community Relations Specialist Kriste Kovarcik said they plan to continue the internship program in Frederick.