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.
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