Mexico: Deaf Police Officers Fight Crime in Oaxaca

OAXACA, Mexico – The 230 surveillance cameras that monitor the streets of the historic downtown area of Oaxaca – a southeastern city that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 – are watched by deaf police officers who maintain a close eye.

The Oaxaca Police’s Command and Communication Control Center (C4) was reopened in May after chronic maintenance problems had kept it closed for six years. But since the surveillance cameras do not have microphones, the authorities had been unable to determine what was being said by suspected criminals.

So officials turned to State Association for the Deaf to provide personnel with a keen sense of sight and ability to read lips, said Ignacio Villalobos Carranza, deputy secretary for Information and Institutional Development at the Public Safety Secretariat of Oaxaca.

The move has enabled the C4’s deaf police officers to help prevent crime and assist officers on the streets to apprehend suspects, making the downtown area – a major tourism attraction – safer.

“The first advantage the [deaf police officers] provide is that they can read lips,” Villalobos Carranza said. “The second advantage is because the deaf police officers have developed an acute sense of sight – they can see better than most people.”

Before joining the team of deaf police officers, Alicia, who didn’t provide her last name for security reasons, worked as an aide to an executive assistant at an accounting firm. But when the State Association for the Deaf told her the Public Safety Secretariat was hiring, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Those who are hearing impaired do not get distracted by outside noises and our attention is focused on the surveillance cameras,” Alicia, 28, said through an interpreter. “I have personally seen people taking drugs in public and other people engaging in assaults.”

Villalobos Carranza said the deaf officers are adept at spotting when a person is nervous or acting suspiciously, which has led to police officers detain suspects in possession of weapons or drugs, or planning assaults.

On July 12, Alicia identified two suspicious individuals who had spent several minutes on a street corner, looking around until they were approached by a vehicle around midnight. One of the suspects leaned against the driver side window. Darkness prevented the cameras from capturing exactly what the driver passed to the man, but Alicia saw it was a stack of envelopes.

Alicia told what she had seen to the interpreter on duty, who relayed the information to officers on the street. The officers arrested the two suspects after narcotics were found in the envelopes.

A pioneer state

Oaxaca is the first Mexican state to carry out this kind of initiative, according to Villalobos Carranza.

But before the initiative could become operational, the deaf officers had to be tested to gauge their levels of trust, which all of Mexico’s police departments require of their public servants, in accordance with the General Law of the Federal Public Safety System.

During the project’s first stage, 20 deaf people between the ages of 24 and 28 were hired. The employees received surveillance training and how to operate the C4’s cameras and computers, which are connected to the state capital’s Video Surveillance Center.

In addition, each group is assisted by four interpreters, who serve as liaisons with state police departments.

Ignacio Villalobos Carranza, deputy secretary for Information and Institutional Development at the Public Safety Secretariat of Oaxaca, said the deaf police officers are “incredibly committed to their work.” (Courtesy of the Public Safety Secretariat of Oaxaca)

Oaxaca has not experienced the wave of narco-trafficking-fueled violence experienced in other areas of Mexico, particularly in the northern region.

Between 2006 and 2011, the murder rate in Oaxaca has grown slightly, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI).

In 2011, 582 murders were reported, which was much lower than the figures seen in states such as Chihuahua (4,502), Guerrero (2,425) and Nuevo León (2,177). In 2006, Oaxaca registered 550 murders, still lower compared to Chihuahua, 648 and Guerrero, 768. Nuevo León had 179.

However, the 2011 National Survey on Victimization and the Perception of Public Safety (ENVIPE) reported 445,740 of the Oaxaca’s nearly four million residents have been victims of crimes such as theft, property damage and extortion – a 13.5% increase compared to number of crimes reported in 2010.

Second stage

The project’s second stage will be marked by the November openings of other video surveillance centers in the state’s coastal areas, such as Puerto Escondido, Huatulco and the Papaloapan region. The deaf officers who work in the C4 will train their counterparts in other jurisdictions.

An additional 200 cameras will be installed in the coastal area at a cost of $56 million Mexican pesos (US$4.368 million). The investment covers the cost of the cameras, software, training and the preparation of the video surveillance centers, Villalobos Carranza said.

“We’re especially interested in monitoring at-risk areas and tourist attractions,” he added.

Civil society has been particularly pleased with the initiative.

“It not only provides work for the deaf who have struggled so hard to reach this point, but it also makes us feel safe,” said Lorena Rojas, a resident of downtown Oaxaca.

The public calls the deaf police officers “Angels of Silence,” Villalobos Carranza said.

“We have found that they are incredibly committed to their work,” he added. “Sometimes, when they finish their shifts, they go out onto the streets to see if there are dead zones – places the cameras can’t reach. They then take the initiative to make corrections.”

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