When the police officer spotted the man acting suspiciously, pacing erratically with an odd look on his face, he immediately called for backup. That is, he spun around in his chair at the police command center here and rapidly motioned to a colleague in sign language.
The officer, Gerardo, 32, is part of a cadre of 20 deaf officers formed several months ago to help keep an eye on this tourist hub. The suspicious man that he spotted on a security camera turned out to be a prime suspect in a murder.
“Even though we can’t hear, we can undertake any role,” Gerardo said, speaking through an interpreter. More than 200 cameras watch over this city, one of several in Mexico that have installed such security systems in recent years to fight street crime.
While raising some privacy concerns, the systems are celebrated by police officials for giving officers an extra tool to reduce response times and document crimes.
Officials here concede that getting units quickly to the scene is only part of the struggle. Crime victims often decide not to file complaints, lacking faith in the justice system.
Visitors to this colonial city, famed for its art and food, seem reassured by the cameras as well as by accompanying signs warning that the area is under surveillance.
Though Oaxaca is not known for high crime, tourists can be targets for purse-snatchers and pickpockets, and the more working-class neighborhoods have their share of drug dealing, auto thefts, fights and violent crime.
The state refurbished its police command center this year, but found it needed extra help monitoring the 230 cameras, a time-consuming, monotonous task. There was another problem: because the images lack sound, officers had trouble determining what people were saying.
“We could not read lips, so it occurred to us to use deaf people since many of them can,” said Ignacio Villalobos, the public safety under secretary here.
He said their heightened visual attention had enabled the deaf officers to see trouble developing on the screens faster than other officers who can hear and speak but are frequently distracted by the buzzing of phones, police scanners and chatter in the command center.
Mr. Villalobos said the deaf officers — “our silent angels,” he called them — had helped solve or assisted in several cases, though he declined to provide specific data, pending a future evaluation of the program. He called the murder case, from last summer, the biggest success.
The officers received training in police procedures but are not sworn patrol officers and do not carry weapons.
Their job is limited to the command center, but supervisors did not want their last names published, given their involvement in crime reporting.
Few of them had gainful employment before they became crime fighters. The disabled in Mexico have high rates of unemployment and often get by on the support of family and friends.
But the private sector and some foundations are working to reverse that. Among the more visible programs is one at the international airport in Mexico City, where people in wheelchairs work checking identification at security lines and answering questions from visitors.
A recent morning showed the monotony that often characterizes police work, as several deaf officers fixed their gazes on screens displaying the routine nature of city life.
Another officer spotted a couple opening what appeared to be beers in their parked car along the side of a road. A patrol unit was sent over, but the couple were allowed to go with a warning, after they poured out the contents of the bottles.
At first, veteran officers chuckled at the newcomers’ wide-eyed reactions to routine car accidents and purse-snatchings, but over time the novice officers are developing a harder shell.
“We have dehumanized them a little, and they have humanized us,” Mr. Villalobos said with a laugh.
The officers, mainly recruited from social service organizations, said that after their struggles to find work, law enforcement had been rewarding.
One new officer, Eunice, 26, said she had been rejected for jobs at offices and stores, with few managers willing to take a chance or tailor positions to her deafness.
But she has found her niche as an officer. One recent night, she said, the image of someone getting hit by a car flashed across her screen, at first shocking her. But she quickly composed herself and alerted the dispatcher.
With a prideful smile, she said simply, “We are the eyes for them.”
Article from The New York Times