Learning when to be hands-off

Specialized training provides law enforcement tools to interact with people with disabilities


When 73-year-old Karen Garner was arrested for shoplifting last year in Loveland, police officers threw her to the ground and handcuffed her, dislocating her shoulder and breaking a bone in her arm. Garner, who in a bodycam video repeatedly told police she had planned to pay for the items she’d taken, has dementia and an impaired ability to communicate and comprehend language. The city of Loveland settled a federal lawsuit on September 8, agreeing to pay Garner $3 million.

This sort of scenario happens all too often to people like Garner with invisible or non-apparent disabilities such as deafness or autism. But with better law enforcement training, it could happen less often.

Ali Thompson, a former detective with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office and current state investigator, created a curriculum that uses actual bodycam video to better prepare officers to respond to situations involving people like Garner with disabilities. Thompson has two children with special needs—one is essentially nonverbal—so she has firsthand experience with both law enforcement and disability. She recently founded Pulse Line Collaborative Training to share the lessons she’s learned over the years.

“The cops don’t understand the disability world and people with disabilities don’t understand cops,” she says. If there is no imminent threat to safety, officers should remain hands-off. If the person they are trying to interact with doesn’t comply, [the police] need to figure out why.

“We have to teach [officers] to communicate better with people who communicate differently than they do or whose brains work differently than theirs,” she adds. “As cops, we need to understand that if they run, it’s because they think we’re going to kill them. I respect that they are scared of us but it breaks my heart because all the cops I know went into [law enforcement] because they want to help people.”

And though this sort of training isn’t new—several Colorado law enforcement agencies, including the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department, have been addressing the issue for years—it will be mandatory for all law enforcement officers starting in July 2022. Introduced by State Representative Meg Froelich (D-Greenwood Village), the new law passed in the last legislative session with moderate bipartisan support with all Democratic and half of all Republican senators voting for it. It creates a 12-person commission composed of representatives from the disability community, law enforcement, and the state attorney general’s office who will be tasked with examining current training protocols and recommending standards for future curricula.

Froelich says law enforcement supported the bill though it was generated by advocates for people with autism, Alzheimer’s, and those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The bill intentionally omitted legislators from the commission, she adds.

“We really wanted to give the disability community a seat at the table,” she says. “To give them a voice.”

About 1 in 6 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with a developmental disability including autism, cerebral palsy, Tourette syndrome, Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, or intellectual disabilities. People with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to have interactions with law enforcement than the general population, according to the Organization for Autism Research. “People with disabilities are more likely to experience victimization, be arrested, be charged with a crime and serve longer prison sentences once convicted than those without disabilities,” according to advocacy organization The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.

And many people with developmental disabilities have co-occurring psychiatric issues such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or bipolar disorder, says Jennifer Eastman, director of Community Living Policy in Maryland’s Department of Disabilities.

Maryland is thought to have been the first state to mandate disability-awareness training for police in 2015 and several other states have followed suit. State legislators in the state formed the Ethan Saylor Alliance in 2014 to create a curriculum after the state’s Police Correctional Training Commission adopted such training requirements. Ethan Saylor was killed by off-duty police officers working security jobs when Saylor, who had Down syndrome, refused to leave a movie theater. Patti Saylor, Ethan’s mother, was instrumental in the alliance’s foundation with intentions to integrate people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, known as self-advocates, into the scenario-based training for law enforcement.

Law enforcement officers do receive de-escalation training but too often the courses offer only an hour or two on disability issues, if at all, says Leigh Ann Davis who runs the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.
“Just like we expect them to understand things around racial bias, they need to understand disability and biases against people with disabilities—what are the assumptions we’re making about people with disabilities,” she says. “Because if you don’t understand the context of people’s lives, then it’s real hard to understand them. We have to start with listening and understanding the community rather than taking a managerial response.”

The Maryland alliance’s curriculum integrates self-advocate educators to play roles in live scenarios with one core principle being that “All people, including people with disabilities, want to feel safe, understood and included in their communities.” The program seeks to meet six core objectives including recognizing signs that a person has a disability, using effective communication methods with that person, and educating officers about the resources available for people in crisis. The idea is to resolve incidents before they escalate into violence or worse and to get people to appropriate treatment rather than arresting them and taking them to jail.

These concepts require a shift in traditional policing from asserting immediate control of a subject to using what Boulder County Undersheriff Tommy Sloan refers to as discretionary time—taking a few moments to assess a situation before rushing in if there is no imminent safety threat. It requires officers to slow down to determine the underlying issues of a particular person and the circumstances that led up to the situation to which they were called and then to use a variety of techniques to de-escalate it.

But police “don’t always get to control the narrative,” Sloan says. Often the incident for which officers were called has already happened or is in progress which makes taking that discretionary time more challenging and potentially more dangerous, says Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock. “Every cop is always late,” he says he tells his officers. But that’s why it’s important to “spend more time understanding what’s led up to that situation” by asking questions, listening, and observing. Officers should be asking themselves, “What should we be concerned with here and what can I do to diffuse this situation?” he says.

Fifty Douglas County officers recently took Thompson’s Pulse Line eight-hour course, and more classes are scheduled. Boulder County expects to hire Thompson to do the same for its department next year. 

“It starts with how you respond,” says Douglas County Deputy Chad Davey, who was in Thompson’s training. “If you are able to recognize the different indicators [of a disability], it changes how you respond to it, the way you communicate. In most of these cases, time is on our side.”

“Ninety-five percent of their job is talking to people,” says former patrol deputy Cocha Heyden, now Douglas County Sheriff’s public information officer. Heyden has been in law enforcement for 30 years and says she always felt more comfortable speaking with people rather than using force to control a situation. “I’m not a fighter,” she says. “I really feel that I’ve been more effective talking to people. At the end of it, we want to go home safe, we want the person to go home safe. We just want the situation to end peacefully.”

Lisa Schoenbrodt, professor of speech-language-hearing sciences, and Leah Katherine Saal, associate professor of literacy, both at Loyola University in Maryland, published a study earlier this year to assess the effectiveness of Maryland’s training programs. Although the study had statistically limited results—due, in part, to COVID-19 restrictions—after taking the class, trainees reported they had a better understanding of people with disabilities and their rights, and  they had learned techniques to better communicate with them.

As required by all Douglas County deputies, Davey had also previously taken Crisis Intervention Team training or CIT, a 40-hour course designed to teach first responders and others how to respond to people having a mental health crisis. The longer CIT course allows for hands-on scenario practice and has similarities to the disability training, though it’s specifically geared to mental illness concerns. It gives officers insights and tools to handle unusual situations in a less aggressive manner than they might have previously done.

A 2018 study aiming to measure the effectiveness of CIT after 10 years of use in Colorado analyzed 6,353 incidents involving people in a mental health crisis, including reports of substance abuse, psychiatric illness, violence risk, and/or threats of suicide. The report, though limited, “showed encouraging results . . . even in the presence of lethal weapons, and showed promise for the nonviolent resolution of crisis calls.” People experiencing extreme mental health issues were more likely to be taken to an appropriate treatment facility rather than being arrested and put in jail. SWAT teams were less likely to be deployed in these situations since their presence often further agitates someone experiencing the effects of mental illness—the same could be said of a person with an intellectual or developmental disability. Injuries to subjects and officers and the use of force were also found to have fallen, albeit minimally.

Thompson recognizes the benefits of live scenario-based training but her program is limited to eight hours, she chose to use bodycam videos that she stops midstream and discusses the situation with students asking them how they might respond. So it’s more streamlined than CIT, Davey says, but it is still very interactive, and Thompson really pushes people to be involved in the conversation. “It’s the best way to broadcast that information to the class given the time constraints,” he adds.

Getting officers trained can be challenging though, particularly for smaller departments that can’t afford, from safety or financial perspectives, to take officers off shifts to attend an eight-hour training—let alone 40 hours. Davey previously worked for the Teller County Sheriff’s Office, which is much smaller than Douglas County. He’d requested to take CIT, but it just wasn’t feasible, he says, due to the burden it would place on the department and his coworkers.

Thompson is actively seeking grant funding so she can offer the Pulse Line disability training at no- or low-cost to those departments. If a national bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) passes, Colorado law enforcement could be at the front of the line to receive training grants through the Safe Interactions Act.

Boulder County’s deputies are trained well beyond Colorado’s core minimum standards. Sloan says his department’s culture has changed over the years due, in part, to twice-weekly mini-training sessions in which community members, including people with disabilities, are invited to speak to deputies about various topics. 

About a year ago, for example, three officers and a game warden responded to a suicidal man way up in the mountains, Sloan says. The officers stopped on the road before approaching the situation and devised a game plan. When the man started throwing small explosive devices at officers, they didn’t panic and instead shot him in the belly with a bean bag. The incident ended with no injuries. To people looking on, it would have seemed dramatic, Sloan says. “But to [the officers] it was ‘That’s how you’re supposed to do it.’”

He adds, “We’ve always had mental health issues in the community. But we used to say they’re just crazy. Now deputies say, ‘That person may be affected by schizophrenia.’”

Though law enforcement attitudes are beginning to change, it will likely take time before there’s a complete shift in the culture. Colorado has more than 8,000 law enforcement officers in a state that spans more than 100,000 square miles, much of it in rugged mountainous terrain. But for Boulder County Undersheriff Sloan, whose department is admittedly well-placed financially and well-staffed, it’s a built-in expectation.

This sort of training, he says, “makes for a good deputy, it protects our liability and it’s the right thing to do.”

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