Police Officers and People with Disabilities, Mental Illness.

Policing & Mental Health

Police Officers and People with Disabilities, Mental Illness.

Police and People with Disabilities

If you watch enough police procedurals, you are familiar with the idea of an “EDP,” an emotionally disturbed person.  Like many things on TV, at the end of the hour the interaction between police officers and the “EDP” often wraps up neatly with the police officer and the person with a mental illness both returning happily to their lives, but this tells very little of the true story about the police and people with disabilities.

A 2016 report released by the Ruderman Family Foundation, written By David M. Perry, PhD and Lawrence Cater Long, shares some shocking statistics about actual interactions between the police and people with disabilities.

According to the authors’ research, “Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. Disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated.”

This report focuses on the fact that in many of the high profile cases that result in death caused by use of force, those killed are often people with disabilities.  The authors suggest that, “The media is ignoring the disability component of these stories, or, worse, is telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism.”


The picture in New York

Given the likeliness of people with disabilities, particularly those with hidden disabilities, interacting with police in a negative way, it would make sense for a large, diverse city like New York to provide specialized training to officers to decrease the misunderstandings fed by stereotypes of people with disabilities that so often lead to violence and death. Sometimes this does, in fact, happen.

A recent post in Crain’s NY HealthPulse described how the New York Police Department has over 4,000 officers who have been trained to help people who are emotionally disturbed. However, often, the article notes, these are not the officers who are deployed to respond to 911 calls in the community; rather, it is officers from the Emergency Services Unit, who have not received this specialized training, who often respond.

While in the Crain’s article the NYPD insists that “All NYPD Officers are trained extensively on how to recognize and respond to emotionally disturbed persons,” the NYPD has also acknowledged the importance of Crisis Intervention Teams to “reduce the risk of injury to police officers and mentally ill persons.”  Meanwhile, the department relies on both officers with regular training and specialized training to meet the daily needs of policing New York City. In other words, not every situation involving someone who is mentally challenged is responded to by an officer with specialized training. Given the picture painted by the Ruderman report, this is clearly a big problem.

How ignorance can lead to violence

Many of the case studies cited by the Ruderman Family Foundation illustrate a basic misunderstanding of disability on the part of police officers, and how this affects what happens during police encounters.

In general, police officers expect compliance from members of the public. When they do not receive it, they respond as if there is a threat.  However, a person with a disability may not hear, see, or comprehend a police officer’s commands, or understand the context in which they are made, and so not respond in an orderly or predictable fashion. Force is often used in these situations where a person with a disability, because of his or her disability, is simply not able to comply.

This is where the value of community policing – when the police on the beat know people in the community – becomes readily apparent.  When police officers know the residents of a community, including people in the neighborhood who may have a disability, they are more likely to be able to predict how they will respond in a given situation. In these circumstances, the sense of being threatened is absent or at least reduced, and the interaction does not escalate toward violence.

A lack of resources exacerbates the problem

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “With our failing mental health system so inadequate, law enforcement agencies have increasingly become de facto first responders to people experiencing mental health crises.” The results are not unpredictable. According to NAMI’s research, “Each year, 2 million jail bookings involve a person with mental illness. Approximately 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women in local jails have a serious mental illness. One in four people killed in officer-involved shootings has a serious mental illness.”

We have created an untenable, immoral, and horrifying situation. Resources for people with mental health issues are increasingly limited. Many health insurance plans limit psychiatric care visits and many therapists would rather provide services without the hassle of the insurance process and no longer accept it.

Patrol officers, because of both tradition and the value of experience in the workplace, are often the newest, least experienced officers, and have very few tools to help them manage situations involving people with disabilities.  The results are often deadly.  We need to do better, immediately.

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