Understanding Disabilities – A MUST for Law Enforcement

Public service professionals encounter a high volume of situations whereby they come in contact with individuals with disabilities. This is especially true in law enforcement where situations can vary from high intensity to very confusing. Recent statistics indicate that 50%-80% of encounters by officers involve an individual with a disability. Think about that, as many as four out of five encounters may very well be with an individual with a disability! In discussion with select local law enforcement personnel and the Criminal Justice department at Niagara University, appropriate training to the extent necessary to understand and properly address matters is not provided to officers.

Disability Awareness training has been gradually working its way into the fabric of standard training across all entities of the American workforce; from corporate America and Human Resource departments, to public transportation, educators, and emergency responders. It some cases, like public transit and school districts, it mirrors law enforcement as a job that does not receive the training in basic orientation but the incidence of interaction is extremely high. Where it challenges law enforcement beyond the aforementioned is in public perception, media exposure, and some of the dire results if the officer is not trained.

Understanding the disabilities that an officer is likely to encounter is imperative, but it can be extensive. Respecting the fact that all people are different, it would be important to understand characteristics typical of particular disabilities. In the same breath, it would help to clear up myths and misperceptions. However, each disability could be an article (or training) in and of themselves. Equipping officers with basic ‘need to know' information is a start.

In breaking down disabilities categorically, it is safe to identify them in the following:

  • sensory disability; visually impaired/blind and hearing impaired/deaf
  • learning disability; challenges mainly with reading
  • emotional disability; to include mental health
  • developmental disabilities; 5 sub-categories that include intellectual disabilities (mental retardation), cerebral palsy, and autism spectrum disorders
  • physical disability; disabilities such as spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis

It would be important to understand what has occurred within the profession to highlight what awareness really means. It begins with sensitivity training, however, in law enforcement proper training will link the need to be sensitive with an understanding of why that affects the profession and how it allows the officer to best do their job, minimizing conflict and maximizing the ability to serve and protect. Situations may be the best way to highlight this, and here are a few:

  • The officer in Florida who dumped a paraplegic out of his wheelchair, not believing he had a disability. He broke two ribs and she is looking at a third degree felony.
  • The officers in Nevada who pulled over a woman for drunk driving, arrested her, and took the psychiatric ward. She had cerebral palsy.
  • Individuals with autism who have died while in custody mainly do to the pressure on the lungs from the officer on top of them. To date, no officer has died while confronting an individual with autism.
  • The perception that an individual with mental illness is more violent, a proven misconception. It is important to know that if that individual is partaking in drug or alcohol abuse that violent acts may occur at a much higher rate than normal, but an individual suffering from a serious mental health disorder does not pose an added threat.
  • Within the profession itself, the incidence of mental health concerns is the highest of any in the country. Partners as well as supervisors need to be aware of signs and be ready to address needs and support their fellow officers. Stigma and labeling often block an individual from asking for and receiving the help they need. However, with the proper supports many officers can lead everyday lives and continue to be productive members of the force.

So what does encounter mean when we talk of the need for an officer to intervene at a scene where the individual's disability does not call for standard practice? It can be broken down by disability, for the most part, while respecting individual differences. It should also be stated that awareness training is never intended to tell an officer of a new way to encounter a situation. It should help to address it when they realize this may call for a different approach. Techniques in how to identify developmental disability indicators, defusing a matter whereby the individual has clear mental health concerns, recognizing victimization of individuals with disabilities, and proper etiquette in both communicating with or assistance of an individual with a disability are important, and in some cases, imperative.

Unfortunately, many cases that may result in an arrest when the individual is clearly involved in deviant or criminal conduct are the result of a failed upbringing, lack of appropriate supports, a flawed education system, or the inability to identify the need for additional interventions and professional presence in that person's life, usually while they are still children or teens. Up to two-thirds of children in juvenile detention facilities have received special education services and at least 50% of incarcerated individuals have some form of disability.

Awareness that sensitizes while educating is the most important first step in giving the officer an ability to appropriately, without hesitation or apprehension, address matters in all facets of community service. For more information on training and other matters related to disabilities, contact David Whalen at (716) 565-9338 or visit his website at www.disabilityawarenesstraining.com.

Published in www.policetraining.net, May, 2009.