Time for Better Police Training on Disability

We were shocked in January when 26-year-old Robert Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome, died after being restrained by police for refusing to leave a movie theater. The outraged disability community called for justice and an investigation after the coroner ruled the case a homicide, and was disgusted when a grand jury determined that no crime was committed (thankfully, the Department of Justice thinks otherwise, and the matter will be investigated). This terrible turn of events highlighted a critical problem in the United States: many police officers do not know how to interact with disabled people.

There are several contributing factors to this problem. One is an overall social sense of ignorance about disability and disability rights issues; many police officers enter the force with limited exposure to disabled people, and no knowledge other than that they may have gained from scant interactions on their own. Police academies compound the problem by offering little to no training in the handling of disabled people, which has become a serious problem thanks to the collapse of the social safety net.

Increasingly, police officers are the first responders at scenes where police aren’t really needed, because there’s no alternative. Police officers are expected to provide emergency mental health services, for example, or to assist with intellectually and cognitively disabled adults like Saylor. They often interact with people who may not understand directions or orders, can’t physically comply with requests and may be confused, traumatized and in a high state of stress.

This combination of factors is highly combustible, and it often leads to tragedy. Whether disabled people are dying in restraint or custody or being shot by police, their interactions with police can go very, very poorly.

What Do Police Need to Know?

Disability rights advocates have been lobbying on this issue for decades, and Saylor’s horrific death has created even more motivation to take action on the issue. Last week, Down syndrome advocates participated in a meeting calling for more police training when it comes to dealing with people with Down syndrome, outlining some ideas for what that training might look like and how it might be administered. Down syndrome alone shouldn’t be the only focus of a disability training curriculum, though; U.S. police desperately need mental health training as well as education in autism and other developmental, intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

Furthermore, education about physical disabilities wouldn’t go amiss; few police officers are equipped to deal with wheelchair and powerchair users, for example, or understand the issues associated with handling people who may have fragile bones or disabilities that inhibit flexibility. Disabled people may be seriously injured in police custody because police officers don’t understand that a given restraint or position is actually extremely painful or dangerous; for someone with osteogenesis imperfecta, for instance, handcuffs can break the delicate bones of the wrists.

A detailed curriculum would ideally define and discuss disability, highlight some specific issues involved with particular disabilities (for example, someone experiencing a psychotic break would have a tenuous grasp on reality, and might view police officers as enemies or threats), and talk about how to defuse situations where disabilities are involved. Responsible handling of disabled suspects and witnesses as well as people in need of assistance should also be a part of such training, along with opportunities to interact with actual disabled people to destigmatize and demystify disability.

Some cities, like Portland, OR, have already embraced such programs, working with disability advisory committees to address issues with disability and the police force. Likewise, Seattle, Washington has an excellent intervention program for people in mental health crisis. Sadly, such initiatives are often founded in the wake of serious civil rights violations, and sometimes under orders as part of a larger program for departmental reform. But they do provide an interesting model for police departments and disability rights advocates to build upon for creating a national program to ensure that interactions between disabled people and law enforcement go well, wherever they happen.

Getting the Right Representatives Involved

Clearly, representatives of the disability community need to be involved in such efforts. Disability advisory boards composed of community volunteers would be a good place to start, and a national curriculum could be built in a cooperative effort between disability rights organizations and law enforcement groups. The curriculum might include a mixture of online content, as proposed in the meeting last week, as well as real-world trainings that could be implemented at low cost.

How to Do This with So Little Money?

Making disability awareness part of the continuing education requirements for law enforcement officers would also be tremendously beneficial, perhaps as part of a larger civil rights education program. Organizations certified to provide such training could integrate civil rights training into their curricula, providing a great way to spread the burden of education and costs across the system; many police departments have limited funds for providing training, and could be at a disadvantage if saddled with mandates to improve training and no money to implement them.

Allocating additional funds to civil rights education and disability training in particular would also be a smart move for city budgeting officials. As a number of pilot programs have shown in cities where police are working on disability issues, advancing funds for such programs has a number of positive benefits. They improve the quality of life for disabled people in the city, address ongoing issues like lack of mental health care more effectively, and help police officers do their jobs. More cynically, of course, they also reduce the potential for costly civil rights suits, which can bring a police department and city to its knees financially with high awards from angry juries.

With all eyes turned to U.S. police in the wake of the Saylor case, this is an excellent time to increase pressure to improve training.

Related posts:

Disabled Man Dies After Police Restraint

Actually, Mentally Ill People are More Likely to be Victims of Violence

Innocent Deaf Woman Tasered by Tacoma Police

Photo credit: 24704869


Cat L.
John roll4 years ago

Holy moley, Diana. You are one angry woman. And one massively wrong woman. Count your lucky stars you for now don't have any "special needs and requirements." Because let me give you a little insight: if that ever happens, odds are high your family would scatter quicker than a kite with a broken string to avoid taking care of YOU. I doubt you have kids, because I doubt anyone could stand to be around you long enough to get you pregnant - but if you do, be thankful they don't need any of these programs.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se5 years ago


Christine Stewart

The police need more training, and there also needs to be alternatives to calling the cops- like on-call psychological/ social services when you really just need a "negotiator" , not police per se.

Past Member 5 years ago

I hate to break it to some people, but even Social Security, et al, fall under that umbrella term of "entitlements". And yes is IS the social responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves. This includes the elderly and the disabled. And while it seems so easy to say that it is first and foremost the responsibility of the family' that is simply not always an option. For one, not everyone HAS a family they can turn to. Sometimes this is because they've outlived their family either through age or tragedy. Sometimes, there are either family dynamics that we are simply unaware of that prevent it or court orders which preclude it. And, most commonly, families simply cannot afford to help even though they do everything they can to help regardless and continually fall short through no fault of their own.

Yes, the system is buggered and needs to be fixed. Whining about those who get more than you in aid/help, and/or whining about those in political positions abusing those positions, and/or whining about the system in general does NOT solve anything! It is up to ALL OF US to work toward fixing it and removing from power those who abuse that power. I agree with those who've previously stated that more education is needed and part of the solution.

Diana S.
Diana S5 years ago

Do NOT preach "social responsibility" to me!!! I pay my taxes ever freaking year, to fund entitlement programs for which I do not qualify, and never will; I watch the legislators whose salaries I pay taking bribes from big biz and filthy fossil fuel producers (oops, that's called "lobbying" - sorry); I watch programs like Medicare and Social Security, FOR WHICH I HAVE ALREADY PAID FOR MY SHARE, being cut so entitlement programs that benefit people who have not paid their fair share can be expanded; and I watch legitimate American citizens go homeless while illegals work the jobs that could substantially curtail AMERICANS' homelessness!

I've seen this country's social welfare programs, for the last 50-60 years, pay stupid people to sit on their asses and breed while the rest of the hardworking, taxpaying public go without vital necessities just to meet their tax liabilities!!! I've watched unions gain a stranglehold on American business by taking minimum-wage, no-brainer jobs and pricing them completely out of the market. Am I pissed off - you're damn' well RIGHT I am!

In a world so disgustingly overpopulated with humans that we are destroying our ecosystem, extinct-ing our precious fellow-creatures EVERY DAY, and exhausting our non-renewable resources, we should be dealing with the problem, not playing the denial game!

The responsibility of individuals with special needs and requirements is, first, foremost, and always, the responsibility of their families/parents/e

Anna M.
Anna M5 years ago

education and training can only help.

becka w.
becka w5 years ago

IMPROVE training TEACH ANTI bulling and lower their PAY.

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola5 years ago

Thank you for sharing this

Cat S.
cathie S5 years ago

The problem here might be training but I really think that a lot of them after they get that badge they think they are above the law not all but a lot,so therefor they feel they do no wrong and they cover up for each other it makes me sick. I hope they SUE the hell out of them. I can not understand why the grand jury determined that no crime do they need help doing their job? As far as the Department of Justice saying the matter will be investigated yea right I will not hold my breath on that. MY HEART goes out to Robert Ethan Saylor and his family and I hope you get justice for him. RIP Robert Ethan Saylor you are a Angel now watching over us.
This should NEVER happen NEVER.

Cat S.
cathie S5 years ago

wow that's all I can say