People with disabilities comprise the largest minority group in the United States. To effectively address this group, both from a victim and perpetrator perspective, law enforcement officers require special knowledge and training. Those who fully understand the significant impact of disability on this large population base and the likelihood that officers will encounter it on a frequent basis are much better equipped than those who do not. Greater understanding by officers about disabilities vastly improves the chances for effective and beneficial outcomes when officers and people with disabilities come into contact.
Some specific disability training benefits
While basic knowledge of the broad presence of and impact that disability plays on a large part of the populace is a foundational training requirement, the following illustrate some of the areas where and why improved disability training may be most beneficial to law enforcement:
- Adhering to requirements of the Americans with Disability Act and pertinent state and local laws and regulations will improve trust within communities (PDF) between law enforcement and people with disabilities. People with disabilities are of course entitled to equal access to the assistance of law enforcement with all other segments of our population. Law enforcement can minimize claims of discrimination and ensuing liability (PDF) by training officers about effective means of communicating and confronting or assisting people with disabilities.
- The need for law enforcement to understand Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) is continually increasing. Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) programs rarely address the societal increase of incidences of certain I/DDs, which may include autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). As one might expect, people with I/DD or FASD are represented disproportionately in our criminal justice system to the percentage of cases of both disabilities in the population over all. Some people with I/DD find themselves in the criminal justice system because of the role played by the specific I/DD. People with I/DD disabilities "have a 4 to 10 times higher risk of becoming victims of crime when compared to those without disabilities (PDF)." Suspects are impacted by the disabilities as well.
- Law enforcement should be trained to understand and appreciate that while some mental illness may seem to demonstrate in a similar fashion to some intellectual disabilities, the two are indeed different and require different responses and communication strategies. Citizens with these different types of disabilities require a different response from officers, different strategies for communication and different resources and support.
- If a crisis is imminent and unavoidable, minimizing the use of force is crucial. Law enforcement training program directors need to include polices and processes designed to avoid escalation of tensions when dealing with people with disabilities including I/DD.
- It is perhaps not surprising emotional and out of the norm responses to law enforcement actions are frequently viewed as resistance, illegal reaction or an outright criminal act. Training must provide law enforcement officers with the necessary understanding of common responses of people with I/DD. Officers need to be able to understand and anticipate that people with I/DD and other disabilities may respond in a manner not common amongst those in the general population. Officers armed with this understanding are much more likely to generate positive results as they engage in actions to de-escalate the situation.
- Community policing (PDF) as opposed to a crisis intervention approach may be the most appropriate approach for law enforcement in dealing with people with I/DD. To this point, disability training programs have focused on dealing with people who may be in the grips of mental illness. It is therefore important for trainers to instill an understanding of the differences with I/DD and utilize this training to develop and implement programs to build healthy relationships with community members with I/DD and other disabilities.
Making a difference
This above concepts and other aspects addressing challenging law enforcement and community issues with all people, including people with disabilities, is given excellent treatment in the Department of Justice Manual Law Enforcement Best Practices: Lessons Learned from the Field (PDF). At the outset the report states:
Modern policing rests upon the foundational precept that the effective control of crime, disorder, and fear requires community participation and assistance. Communities are vital sources of information about crimes, offenders, and ongoing criminal or social problems. Communities also encompass the interpersonal networks that form the basis for social cohesion and collective self-protective action. Using techniques of community policing and engagement, law enforcement agencies can obtain the information they need to solve problems proactively and facilitate the process of informal social control that generates ongoing, sustainable public safety.
This principle applies across the board to law enforcement’s interaction with the community of people with disabilities.
Building safer communities is a shared responsibility that should not fall to law enforcement alone. Having an awareness of disability issues in order to protect the rights and lives of people with disabilities is crucial, but this is a job law enforcement cannot do alone. They must have support from people with disabilities, the disability community, and the larger criminal justice community to tackle this issue with success.