By Michael Rock
Many people find it unnerving to interact with law enforcement officers. For people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, these sentiments can be amplified due to the nature of the deficits they face. Ignorance about disability and its intersection with the law from police can further exacerbate possible tensions.
A strong example of such challenges involves a 53 year old Chicago man with Down Syndrome who was beaten to death in 2017 by one of the other residents of his group home as part of a dispute over Halloween candy. The housemate was not charged on the grounds that he did not have the mental capacity to understand the severity of his actions. Such complicated situations as this particular case demonstrate the need for innovative new ways for people with intellectual disabilities to be held accountable for crimes.
In another such case, a 19-year old Graham, Texas man with autism was thrown to the ground and tasered by officers who mistakenly thought he was intoxicated. In addition to facial scratches, a blood vessel in one of his eyes burst during the confrontation. Video footage of the ordeal led to an internal review.
Some experts believe better training is crucial for police officers to recognize that someone with whom they interact has a disability. The Arizona state legislature is currently considering House Bill 2566, a bipartisan measure that would require officers to undergo regular online and in-person training through a program to help them manage communications difficulties from challenges such as hearing impairments and developmental disabilities. They would be tracked to ensure they complete the program and consistently apply it across their job when necessary.
In Baltimore, Loyola Marymount University, Best Buddies, and the Municipal Police Academy developed a program in which officers and people with disabilities role-play to foster better understanding of the needs of the latter group in the event that officers interact with them.
Meanwhile, New York state’s Office of People with Developmental Disabilities recently announced that it would begin issuing specialized identification cards for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that alert officers to a holder’s disability, how to appropriately interact with them, and provide key personal information.
Further efforts to prevent unnecessary conflicts between the police and people with disabilities include Orange Park, Florida’s “Take Me Home” initiative, which creates a database of locals who have communication difficulties stemming from conditions such as Down Syndrome and autism, as well as forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease. The database provides names, recent photos, emergency contact information, and other details that may be crucial in the event that they go missing and that officers must find them.
In Virginia, the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office recently established a similar program under the name “Project First Responder.”
Perhaps the greatest way to break down barriers between people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and police officers, however, is to have them interact with each other on friendly, unpretentious terms, as in the recent second annual “Bowlympics” in Toledo, Ohio. At this event, local police, the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office, and the county’s Board of Developmental Disabilities partnered so that local participants in the Special Olympics can bond with law enforcement officers over some friendly competition at Southwyck Lanes.
AABR has also recently worked to improve relations between the residents of its Wellington Hall group home in Jamaica, Queens and the 103rd Precinct of the New York Police Department. Over the course of two days, two detectives offered presentations that included showing the residents some of the gear and tools that they use on the job, and allowing them to wear and touch it, as well as drives in their police car. It culminated with the officers being given homemade goodie bags and the residents being given their own police shields.
There is no doubt that relations between law enforcement and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be a challenging and sensitive issue. However, better training and awareness, as well as mutual understanding and respect, can help to improve them.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.