Two years ago, Jodi Kozma was browsing at her local Wal-Mart when she was abruptly stopped for questioning and accused of stealing hair ties. She wound up on the ground under a pile of police officers, all over a set of hair ties that she hadn’t even stolen, and the intellectually disabled woman was traumatized, terrified and desperate for help. She called her mother in a panic, but by then, it was too late. Today, Jodi can’t even see a Wal-Mart ad without bursting into tears, and her former trust in law enforcement officers has been completely eroded.
A series of compounding failures caused this situation to end up the way it did. Kozma’s family wants restitution as well as an apology from the store and the police, but the case highlights a bigger issue in retail stores: most are not trained in how to handle disabled customers, particularly those with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. Since associates and security aren’t familiar with de-escalating tactics and disability rights issues, they can turn what could be a routine security check into a nightmare for everyone involved.
In this case, Jodi was shopping with her grandmother. They’d paid for their items and were on the way out the door when a security officer stopped them, claiming to have seen Jodi stealing hair bands. Her grandmother tried to intervene, saying that the bands had been bought elsewhere and offering a receipt as proof. She also informed security that her granddaughter had an intellectual impairment, and thus wouldn’t knowingly steal. She was attempting to reach a friendly, calm solution to the problem while also working to keep Jodi calm, as she became agitated by the commotion.
Properly trained personnel could have worked with Jodi’s grandmother to keep the situation as calm as possible. Instead of attempting to search Jodi or ask questions she couldn’t answer, they could have kept her with her grandmother while the issue was sorted out. Instead, they chose to call the police, who instantly took on very aggressive physical tactics with Jodi, separating her from her grandmother and her mother, once her mother arrived on scene. Jodi’s panic escalated because she didn’t know what was going on, and she acted out due to her fear and confusion.
Personnel working in security and loss prevention need to be aware that for intellectually and cognitively disabled people, disruptions in routine can be extremely upsetting. This can include being separated from family members or stopped for no explainable reason. Agitation can rapidly increase if disabled people aren’t provided with comforting, familiar people and objects to ground them — for example, a parent, aide, or other family member to explain what’s happening. Furthermore, some disabled people rely on aides and other mediators to help them interact with people like law enforcement and store clerks. By separating Jodi and her grandmother, the police and Wal-Mart effectively took her voice away.
The case highlights the need to provide comprehensive law enforcement training in handling interactions with disabled people. This situation could have been easily resolved at the door with proof of purchase, or again when police arrived and took stock of what was going on, but instead a young disabled woman was traumatized by brutal, inappropriate handling.
Her family’s quest for compensation includes a push for better training of Wal-Mart personnel and police to address the gap in understanding when it comes to handling the needs of disabled customers.
Photo credit: Mike Mozart.