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March 23, 2017; St. Louis Today

After multiple police shootings of people with disabilities, along with violent arrests, nonprofit organizations are working with law enforcement to train officers on how to assess situations and best communicate with suspects who may have communication, learning, or other disabilities. The scenario reminds us in some ways of the battered women’s movement of thirty years ago. Then, as now, it was a national network of nonprofits with violence-against-women programs that advocated with localities and states (as well as nationally) to help deliver police trainings and raise awareness.

The cases of the last few years clearly indicate that too many police do not receive enough instruction to develop an adequate understanding of how disabilities might manifest and how to react appropriately. Although officers do receive some training, Captain Gary Higginbotham of the Jefferson County Police Department in St. Louis believes that “Fear causes a lot of these issues.”

Thomas Horejes, executive director of Deaf, Inc., a nonprofit organization in St. Louis, offers some scenarios when he trains law enforcement. Take, for example, the arrest of a deaf person. To start with, the suspect may not hear sirens or the officer’s voice over the loudspeaker. If the suspect starts using animated sign language in an attempt to communicate, the potential is there for the officer to misunderstand what the deaf person is doing, particularly if there is an object in their hand. If the officer attempts to handcuff the deaf person, they may become incredibly frightened, as their primary means of communication is with their hands. From the officer’s point of view, this can be interpreted as resisting an arrest. Deaf, Inc. works closely not only with police departments but also deaf people in the community so each understands the other’s perspective and can change behavior as needed.

Similarly, advocates have designed trainings to teach law enforcement how to recognize and respond appropriately to persons with developmental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, ADHD, and Down syndrome. Particularly in the case of autism spectrum disorders, characteristics such as lack of eye contact that are common for those on the spectrum can be confusing for officers. Persons with cerebral palsy, seizures, or traumatic brain injury can present with slurred speech, a dazed look, and trouble walking that may appear as intoxication.

Some states have gone beyond offering trainings and have proposed laws requiring such trainings for officers. Just last week, the Connecticut legislature unanimously approved a law that would require officers to participate in training focused on interacting with persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities. A bill proposed in Ohio takes a different route. Ohio lawmakers proposed creating a voluntary registry for persons with disabilities that officers can access prior to or during an arrest. Such a system could take the purported burden off of the police officers who need to concurrently identify a disability, respond appropriately, assess the situation for threats, and potentially make an arrest. It would also relieve the need for a person with a disability to communicate that disability in a tense or stressful situation.

To some extent, this stands as an update to a problem long recognized by police departments and in research. NPQ first wrote about this serious civil rights issue in 2015 in a newswire entitled “Excessive Police Force toward Persons with Disabilities Needs National Discussion,” which brought to our attention the Ruderman Foundation’s excellent materials on the matter. Sometimes, there can be a long pause between the identification of an issue like this and the implementation of new standards. Regardless, further training is needed for both persons with disabilities and law enforcement to reduce the occurrence of misunderstanding and violence.—Sheela Nimishakavi