Sign language opens clearer channel for college police

Security officials participate in lessons taught by higher ed instructors
By: | Issue: January, 2017
December 23, 2016

Stephanie Murphy, a security specialist with the Columbus State Community College police department, realized officers were having trouble communicating with one segment of the Ohio institution’s 26,000 students. 

A group of campus officers bought into her novel policing solution, volunteering to learn American Sign Language (ASL) in the summer and fall of 2016. These officers, whether responding to a crime or just helping someone jump start a car, can now exchange basic information, quickly and clearly, with students or staff members who are deaf or hearing-impaired.

The college has about 32 students who identify as hearing-impaired or deaf. 

In a true emergency, valuable time can be lost if an officer has to call for an interpreter, campus police Chief Sean Asbury says.

“We’ve had a number of situations already where our officers have been able to translate between students and outside emergency services during a health issue,” adds Asbury, whose department has 24 police officers, nine security staffers and a dozen dispatchers. 

Instructors from the college’s Disability Services department lead the weekly sign-language lessons, free of charge. Instead of diving right into full-blown conversational skills, police and department staff first mastered letter signs. This allows them to at least spell out words to communicate. 

Officers then learned some basic words and phrases, so they could say “I’m here to help” or ask for a description of a crime suspect. Sgt. Laura Diamond was the first to use her sign-language skills in the field when she assisted an employee who had been injured in a fall.

“I was able to communicate with the individual, but there was a lot of stress from other folks trying to help her,” she says. “As soon as they saw me signing with her, it helped relax everyone.” 

A dozen or so officers at University of Central Arkansas also learned sign language basics in 2016. In that case, two professors from the university’s speech-language pathology department taught the classes, which can be seen in a video

Asbury says police chiefs trying to solve similar challenges should take advantage of the vast skills and resources available at most colleges and universities. “Being on a college campus puts us in a unique position,” he says. “We have a lot of support and resources that municipal police departments don’t always have.”

Data points


—Estimated minimum number of American Sign Language speakers in
the U.S.; some estimate there are up to 2 million speakers

Source: Gallaudet University Library


—Approximate percentage of Americans over age 18 who report having some trouble hearing, as of 2012

Source: National Center for Health Statistics