In 2013, Robert Saylor went to see a showing of Zero Dark Thirty with his aide, and when the film finished, he was unwilling to leave the theater. After staffers called police, his aide warned that he didn’t like to be touched, but police officers grabbed the 26-year-old man, who had Down syndrome, ultimately restraining him because he was struggling under their hands.
Within minutes, he was experiencing respiratory distress, and he ultimately died after police and medical responders were unable to resuscitate him. He joined the long list of people killed by police in the United States, among whom are many disabled people like him — people who don’t understand orders from police officers, are confused in chaotic environments, and pose no threat to anyone but still find themselves classified as dangerous.
The case was a watershed moment for the State of Maryland, even after a grand jury predictably failed to indict the officers involved. Disability advocates were furious, and pressured the state to take action to prevent future incidents. The response: a disability sensitivity training program, the first of its kind in the nation, which includes a four hour intensive to discuss issues specific to the disability community and how to interact with disabled people, including those with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities, on the job.
Moreover, the program is particularly unique because of who is taking a starring role in the leadership and teaching: disabled people themselves. Self-advocates are active at every step of the way to provide information to police about how they perceive the world, so that officers can make smart choices about how to engage when they know a subject is disabled or suspect disability may be clouding a situation.
Police officers are expected to respond very rapidly to situations they may not fully understand, with a focus on public health and safety. This can come into direct conflict with some disabled people, like D/deaf people who don’t hear or understand orders from police officers, developmentally disabled people who may reach for objects on an officer’s belt out of curiosity, combative mentally ill people confused because they are experiencing breaks with reality and psychosis, intellectually disabled people who don’t understand questions, or cognitively disabled people who become distressed in crowded and chaotic situations. Many law enforcement agencies have little to no training in disability issues like these, and the cost is high for disabled people.
Maryland will be the first state in the country to require police officers to undergo disability sensitivity training across the state. Some counties have already started training their officers in conformity with guidelines legislators are still hammering out, and the training will have secondary benefits too. Police officers in the program receive what’s called deescalation training, in which they work with subjects to defuse a situation using neutral, nonviolent means.
This guidance will be useful not just in situations where police interact with disabled people, but more broadly. Teaching police to turn to nonviolent methods that involve communicating with subjects to understand a situation and get control is important — especially in the state where Freddie Gray died, illustrating that police officers do not have a handle on dealing with subjects responsibly.
The inclusion of self-advocates will hopefully prove to be a model for similar programs elsewhere. Disabled people are often left out of conversations like these, represented by people speaking for them. Being able to interact with police allows them to engage in their communities, raise issues that nondisabled people might not consider, and connect with law enforcement to humanize the face of disability.
Police officers who actually meet disabled people will be better-equipped to interact with them in the outside world. Depending on the outcome of Maryland’s training, hopefully other states will use its legislation as a model for putting similar measures in place, making the streets safer for disabled people.
Photo credit: Andrea Feinberg