Working around people with functional needs (commonly referred to as special needs) requires understanding each person’s unique presentation of a specific disability as well as how to interact with them. This knowledge is especially critical for law enforcement officers.
Many police officers receive little to no disability awareness training throughout their career, which can lead to negative outcomes for the police officer, the department and the person with special needs and their loved ones. In fact, police officers are more likely to use force against a person with a disability, and one-third to one-half of individuals killed by police have a disability.
Law enforcement officers need consistent, accurate and informative training about special needs. This training allows officers to have positive experiences with people who have disabilities, so everyone can stay safe in these scenarios.
Why Special Needs Training Should Be Part of Law Enforcement Training
Special needs training is important for police officers to interact safely with people with disabilities and functional needs. The lack of training means many officers do not recognize the symptoms of disabilities and may see certain behaviors or traits as suspicious or dangerous, which can create problems during an interaction.
Examples of traits and behaviors that the police may misidentify as suspicious include:
- Little to no eye contact: Police officers expect people to make eye contact during questioning. However, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may make little to no eye contact when talking. The police may see this as suspicious or a sign of guilt.
- Touching: Some people with disabilities may touch or initiate physical contact during a conversation. It’s possible for police officers to misinterpret the contact as threatening.
- Not talking: Police officers may call out or shout from a distance. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may not hear the officers or be unable to lip read or communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) if the officers cannot converse in ASL. People who are non-speaking (commonly referred to as non-verbal) may be unable to communicate. The lack of communication may be interpreted as noncompliance.
- Repeating certain movements or vocalizations: Law enforcement presence may include lights and sounds from sirens, bullhorns and shouting. People who are hyper-responsive to sensory input may feel overwhelmed and experience emotional distress. They may do self-soothing activities like repetitive physical movements to calm themselves, which police may see as suspicious.
Problems With Current Police Training on Disabilities
Many law enforcement officers receive little to no training about intellectual and developmental disabilities. Problems with current police training include:
- Lack of consistency: Current disability awareness training is inconsistent, so some officers may be more trained than others, even within one police department. For example, some departments offer optional training courses on interacting with people who have disabilities. Officers who opt out of this training lack this critical knowledge and may continue to have a lack of understanding about symptoms and behaviors.
- Application issues: Some programs include disability awareness training in their crisis intervention training (CIT), which focuses on how to respond to a person with a mental illness. However, these skills may not apply to a person with a disability. For instance, CIT teaches police officers the signs of a mental health crisis, which can be different from the symptoms and behaviors a person with a disability exhibits.
- Focus on control: Most police training focuses on how to gain and maintain control of the situation as authority figures. Police officers spend a lot of their training hours learning how to use weapons, use of force and defensive tactics. As a result, many law enforcement officers expect compliance when giving an order, so they view noncompliance as a threat.
Ideas for Disability Awareness Training for Law Enforcement
The good news is that training requirements are changing as more law enforcement agencies and the public understand why police need better training on special needs. More states are starting to mandate special needs training programs for all police officers, regardless of their years of service.
These programs teach officers:
- The symptoms and behaviors of a range of disabilities.
- How to identify a person with a disability.
- How symptoms can vary between people with the same disability.
- How to respond to and communicate with these individuals.
Here are a few key activities that disability awareness training programs can include:
- Roleplaying exercises: Including people with disabilities in the training program allows officers to test the skills they’ve learned in a roleplaying scenario. Have a group of people with a range of disabilities play out common scenarios with police officers. Roleplaying allows officers to practice thinking on their feet and testing different approaches to situations. The participants with disabilities can also learn how to respond to officers in a safe and relaxed setting.
- Real-life examples: Training programs can analyze real examples of interactions between law enforcement and people with disabilities. This analysis can help officers understand what went well and what could be improved. The most impactful examples come from local case files, so police departments can see their historical approach to these incidents.
- Insights from caregivers: Caregivers have valuable insight into how to interact with individuals with disabilities. Training programs should include input from caregivers to provide police officers with this unique perspective. A caregiver’s role can range from designing the coursework to serving as an advisor for a training course.
The key to training is awareness, which helps law enforcement officers gain insights into various disabilities and how to serve their community better.
How Caregivers Can Support Law Enforcement Training for Special Needs
Improvements in disability awareness training must come from police officers as well as people with disabilities and their caregivers. As the police receive better training on special needs, individuals with functional needs can also learn how to respond to police officers and manage these interactions.
Caregivers can promote positive interactions between police and people with disabilities by:
- Starting or supporting a local program: Start a training program in the community, or if the local police department already has training, support that program where possible. Disability awareness training allows civilians with disabilities to learn about a police officer’s job. They can learn how to talk to an officer and see the equipment and tools they wear as part of their uniform.
- Practicing talking to police officers: Caregivers can use roleplaying scenarios to teach a person with a disability how to interact with law enforcement. Caregivers can explain what police officers are and how to talk to them, then have a pretend conversation to teach them what to say and how to act.
- Registering for a disability identification card: Some states offer disability identification cards for a person with a disability to carry. The card states the disability the person has, such as ASD or schizophrenia, and is typically free to anyone 16 and older. When interacting with the police, the card alerts officers to the person’s condition so they can react appropriately.
Contact Enabling Devices Today
Disabilities training for law enforcement is critical. It teaches police officers more about disabilities and how to interact with people with a range of abilities. This understanding leads to situations where police and all civilians stay safe and have a positive experience with one another.
Enabling Devices sells assistive technology and other products that allow people with disabilities to participate fully in the world. We have been in business for over 40 years and are passionate about supporting this community. Contact Enabling Devices today for more information.