To Protect and Serve

On January 18 an angry San Francisco police officer nearly dumped a man with a spinal cord injury out of his wheelchair onto the street – an inexcusable, aggressive act that no police force would ever condone. But while an incident like this one may grab headlines, most negative interactions between law enforcement and people with disabilities seem to arise from ignorance, rather than ill will.

Given how little the general public actually understands about the range of disabilities people live with, it’s not surprising that police officers aren’t skilled in interacting with people who have them. But given their role in society, this lack of competency can carry a heavy cost.

Last month, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued an interim report advising that police officers should use physical restraint against a person with a disability only as a last resort. This task force was created just five months ago in response to widespread protests of police-involved deaths of unarmed African American men, particularly Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner on Staten Island, and recommendations regarding disability are only a very small part of its 103 page report. Still, the inclusion of disability in the report is important, because interactions between people with disabilities and law enforcement are too often confrontational and sometimes deadly.

The case of Eric Garner, in particular, whose death arose from physical restraint, invited comparisons with the death eighteen months earlier of Ethan Saylor, a young man with Down syndrome. Saylor died after being restrained by three off-duty law enforcement officers as he refused to leave a Maryland movie theater after the show. Saylor’s death led to a meeting between the U.S. Department of Justice and several disability rights organizations, with the advocates urging widespread disability competency training for police forces nationwide.

One sad irony about the Saylor case is that the 26 year old was a huge fan of his local police force. It’s not hard to imagine that, had the three off-duty officers working security at the theater understood Saylor’s disability they would have been equipped to handle the situation very differently – perhaps resolving it with conversation rather than physical force. We’ll never know. But what we do know is that disability competency was not part of their police training.

The case for training law enforcement

In December, the police department of Geneva, New York sent two detectives and a sergeant to a disability competency program taught by Niagara University. As Geneva’s Chief of Police, Jeff Trickler, explained, “If an officer is unaware of an individual’s particular disability, their behavior may appear unpredictable or irrational.”

After completing the course the three officers were charged with training the rest of the Geneva police force in skills including recognizing different types of disabilities, identifying manners and characteristics associated with specific disabilities and communicating with, responding appropriately to and providing services for people with disabilities.

Without this type of training and insight it’s easy for behaviors to be misconstrued and for an interaction to become volatile. For example, someone who has difficulty speaking due to multiple sclerosis or a spinal cord injury may inaccurately be judged by a police officer as belligerent, uncooperative or drunk; however, understanding that a medical condition may be responsible for slurred, hesitant or labored speech can alter the dynamic.

The most volatile cases

The most devastating interactions occur most often when a police officer confronts someone with a psychiatric disability who is in crisis – someone who may very well be unpredictable, irrational or both. While many people don’t realize this, dealing with someone having a mental health crisis is a regular part of policing – and one for which few officers are properly trained. As was recently pointed out by the National Council on Disability and leading mental health organizations, “[I]n some cities, police spend more time responding to calls involving mental illnesses than they do investigating burglaries or felony assaults.”

That’s probably not what most people think about when they sign up for the police academy. And if you think about the many years of training that mental health professionals must go through, it’s obvious that without specific training a police officer will be poorly equipped to deal effectively with someone in the throes of a psychiatric crisis. More to the point, the very training and skills that allow a police officer to deal with a dangerous, violent criminal – aggression, a commanding presence and the ability to employ physical force – are ineffective and downright counterproductive in confronting a psychiatric emergency, which requires the ability to be calm, soothing, nonjudgmental and nonthreatening.

It’s no surprise that when standard policing practices are applied in those situations, the results can be devastating; hundreds of mentally ill Americans are shot and killed by police officers each year. However, officers who have received relevant training are far more likely to deescalate during an interaction with someone with a psychiatric disability and – most significantly – they are much less likely to use physical force, as the president’s task force on policing recommends.

A look ahead

Disability training for law enforcement was one of our “top ten” wishes for 2015 and this year is shaping up as an important one for police departments, people with disabilities, courts and civil rights groups grappling with this issue. Sometime between now and June 30th the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a ruling in a lawsuit involving a police shooting of a woman with a disability that could strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act or erode its protections.

In the months ahead the president’s task force on policing will flesh out its recommendations, challenging local law enforcement agencies to improve their practices. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, mostly likely under the leadership of a new attorney general, will chart a course on policing reform. Stay tuned.

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