Editor’s note: In honor of Behind the Badge OC’s one-year anniversary, we will be sharing the 30 most-read stories. This story originally published Jan. 5.
Huntington Beach Officer Mark Van Meter was new on patrol when his first “man down” call came over the radio.
The man had suffered a possible heart attack while in the shower.
“I’m thinking I’m going to be doing chest compressions and working to save this man’s life,” said Van Meter, recalling the 2002 incident.
He ran up the stairs following after now-retired Officer Ed Kennedy.
Van Meter expected to walk into chaos when he entered that apartment.
Instead, he was met with silence.
“I walked in and saw Officer Kennedy there signing with a woman,” Van Meter said. “He wasn’t panicking at all.”
Turns out, the deaf woman had found her husband dead in the shower several hours earlier but was afraid to report the death to police, Van Meter said.
“She dreaded the process of dealing with somebody who didn’t know her language,” Van Meter said. “She knew it would be traumatic on top of an already traumatic situation.”
After the call, Van Meter asked Kennedy what the woman said.
“He told me she was immediately put at ease because he knew her language,” Van Meter said.
“That always stuck with me.”
That call proved to Van Meter the importance of having officers who can communicate with the deaf.
In 2010, Van Meter, a motor officer and former Navy SEAL, enrolled in American Sign Language classes.
The classes began as a way to get a pay bump — bilingual officers are paid 5 percent more than their single-language counterparts — but quickly turned into a passion.
“I really enjoy it,” Van Meter said. “It is a huge commitment that takes a lot of dedication.”
Huntington Beach subsidizes language classes for officers including Spanish, Vietnamese and German.
“I didn’t think I could learn Vietnamese, and I couldn’t talk my way to a bathroom in Mexico,” Van Meter said. “Plus, I had such a positive exposure to sign language early in my career, American Sign Language seemed a natural choice for me.”
Van Meter is the only officer at Huntington Beach PD who is ASL proficient — and one of just a handful in Orange County with that designation.
He has been called out to help on a variety of calls, from handling a truant teenager with deaf parents to helping a distressed deaf man stranded at a gas station.
Van Meter also teaches a course at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Academy on making contacts with residents who are blind, deaf or have other special needs.
In learning the language, Van Meter discovered folklore in the deaf community that paints police in a negative light.
“There is an embedded fear,” he said. “Many in the deaf community are just terrified to deal with police.”
As one tale goes: If an officer passes a deaf person on the street, that deaf person will stuff his hands in his pocket because he is afraid his sign language will be mistaken for gang signs.
Another story cautions deaf drivers about reaching for a pen and paper if pulled over for fear an officer may think the driver is reaching for a gun.
“They’ve all heard ‘stories’ about deaf people being tazed, shot or beat up because the police officer incorrectly perceived them as being a threat,” Van Meter said. “Those stereotypes are hard to break.”
This set Van Meter on a mission to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the deaf community.
“I’m trying to be a good example of law enforcement and a link to the deaf community,” he said.
Two years ago, Van Meter hosted a conference for law enforcement employees who can sign or were interested in learning.
He also recently visited Edison High School to speak with their special needs deaf students.
Van Meter said he has plans to also visit Huntington Beach High School and wants to meet the students at Irvine’s University High School, which houses the Orange County Department of Education’s Regional Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program.
He said he hopes more officers will learn to sign and continue to build relationships with the deaf community.
“You have to be willing to put yourself out there,” Van Meter said. “If I can have one positive contact with a deaf resident, maybe I can start breaking those bad perceptions.
“It’s a very daunting task, but one I’m willing to take on.”
Anyone interested in learning more about sign language and law enforcement can reach Van Meter at firstname.lastname@example.org