Police Learn To Better Understand People With Disabilities
When Tom Iland began driving as a teenager roughly 15 years ago, his mother Emily fretted endlessly.
Iland was diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, and his mother worried he might be stopped by police and wouldn’t know how to react to common police demands or questions.
Iland loves Jim Carrey movies and quoted them religiously. At times, he also had a hard time making eye contact, a common characteristic of the condition.
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“What if he quoted a Jim Carrey movie in the middle of the traffic stop?” Emily wondered. “What if he didn’t make eye contact, and the police officer thought it was odd?”
Emily Iland, at the time a stay-at-home mom, decided to launch a career as an autism advocate and researcher. She is now an adjunct professor in the department of special education at California State University, Northridge, and she has developed, with the help of her son, developmental and intellectual disability training for law enforcement agencies nationwide, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
The training is designed to help officers better understand autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, ADHD and other conditions and to teach those with disabilities how to act if they have a police encounter or need assistance from an officer.
“It’s not enough to train the police,” Tom Iland said. “Young people don’t know what to expect when they interact with an officer. We designed this program to be a bridge.”
Roughly 15 percent of children in the United States — or about one in six — have a developmental disability, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Additionally, the prevalence of developmental disabilities has increased nearly 17 percent between 1996 and 2008, according to a CDC study.
As the number of people with disabilities has increased, so too has the number of violent or deadly interactions with police officers.
In 2013, a 26-year-old Maryland man with Down syndrome died of asphyxiation after he refused to leave a movie theater and sheriff’s deputies put him on the floor and handcuffed him, despite pleas from his caretaker to stop.
In 2010, a Tennessee man with cerebral palsy accidentally hit a dog with his car. He explained to responding deputies that he had a medical condition, but the officers believed he was driving drunk and sent him to jail.
And in 2009, a deaf man who had become ill while using a public restroom was pepper sprayed and Tasered repeatedly by police officers who grew concerned after he didn’t respond to their warnings. He hadn’t heard them.
The Ilands hope the training will prevent such tragedies. When an arrest does need to occur, the Ilands coach officers to accommodate individuals with disabilities — for example, handcuffing an individual with cerebral palsy with two sets of handcuffs, since being confined in one pair is very painful for people with the condition.
In January, the U.S. Department of Justice issued similar guidelines, recommending officers make slight modifications to their policing strategies in such situations.
“It’s not special treatment,” Tom Iland said. “It’s accommodations.”
Emily and Tom Iland say their two-way approach to training is the first of its kind.
At a recent training with 40 officers from various law enforcement agencies in Texas, the course started with a 60-page presentation, educating officers about common characteristics that many people with developmental disabilities exhibit. The instructors also led participants in hands-on training. At one point, they were instructed to use silicone oven mitts and try to place paperclips on a stack of papers to show what it feels like to have cerebral palsy.
“I can’t do it! This is hard!” said one individual with a disability.
“You’re doing great!” an officer responded as he struggled to do it.
The training is meant to build this type of compassion and establish relationships. “Having empathy first is an odd way to train, but research shows it’s very effective,” Emily Iland said.
Sgt. Tom Vitacco of Alamo Heights police and Sgt. Tina Vitacco of Universal City police — the two are married — showed individuals with disabilities the tools they carry on their uniform. They told them it’s OK to look and ask questions, but it’s not OK to touch.
“Young people with disabilities often do things that create bad situations, like running from police or touching an officer’s weapon,” Tom Iland explained.
Berni Kelly, an associate director of curriculum at The Arc of San Antonio, a social service organization for people with developmental disabilities, said she was impressed by the training.
Kelly has a 21-year-old son with high-functioning autism. She often worries what would happen if he had a bad interaction with police officers who don’t understand his condition or social skills.
Her son, who is in a public school, recently became angry after his teacher changed his reading privileges in an effort to focus on social skills instead.
The teacher wasn’t able to calm Kelly’s son, and she called Kelly to say: Get here in 15 minutes, or I’m calling police.
Kelly knows her son, who is 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, would never hurt anyone. But officers may not understand his mannerisms and feel threatened by his size.
“This is a bridge that really does need to be gapped,” Kelly said.
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