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May 2019 | Volume 12 | Issue 4

The COPS Office and The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability are partnering to increase awareness and provide learning resources for law enforcement on intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). The goals of this partnership are

  • to inform law enforcement about I/DD;
  • to provide resources and tools that increase knowledge and skills in interactions with the I/DD community;
  • to help build relationships between the I/DD and law enforcement communities.

The resources in development include a series of podcasts, articles for law enforcement, and a five-part video series that can be used as roll call training and as a supplement to in-service training. Speaking engagements at national and international law enforcement conferences and meetings, as well as webinars and roundtable discussions, will all be part of the educational suite of resources.

I/DD are different from other types of disabilities, including mental health disabilities, and often require a different approach from officers. Developmental disabilities, often thought of as an umbrella term, include many distinct diagnoses, but generally include disabilities that start during the developmental period (before age 22) and continue across the lifespan. Intellectual disability, often considered a type of developmental disability, is characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors, which include social, practical, and conceptual skills. These limitations occur before the age of 18 and continue across an individual’s life.

Studies indicate that somewhere between one and three percent of Americans have intellectual disability. The most common diagnoses associated with intellectual disability include autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), but not every person with a developmental disability will have intellectual disability.

It can be quite challenging for law enforcement officers to spot these disabilities, which often have no outward or obvious signs. As a result, people with I/DD are often mistakenly perceived as suspicious when, in actuality, the behavior is related to their disability. In interactions with law enforcement, some individuals with I/DD may not be able to understand or respond appropriately to an officer’s commands or, out of fear, may even try to run away. Like many others, officers may have preconceived notions about disability and related behaviors, but officers need to serve all communities in a fair and impartial way.

One tactical philosophy for engaging people with I/DD and challenging preconceived notions is to encourage officers to slow things down and ask themselves, “What’s really going on here?” This provides an opportunity to build rapport with an individual, ask questions, and assess the entirety of the situation. Taking a few moments to observe the person and take in the situation will allow officers to better gauge if there is an immediate threat and allows for formulation of a plan to call for assistance or deescalate the situation, as appropriate. It is important to note that an officer’s very presence or method of response could quickly escalate a situation, so the more knowledge an officer has about how to interact with someone with I/DD, the better.

The following table lists commonly misunderstood behaviors that are associated with I/DD and are also associated with perceived criminal activities and threats. The left side of the table describes the behavior, while the right side of the table describes examples of actions law enforcement can take to assess the situation, call in assistance, or resolve the situation. In all of these situations, officers must first assess the situation for safety.

Possible Behavior of Person with I/DD

Sample Response

Runs away from officer

Consider why the person is running and if fear may be the cause. Decrease fear by making a personal connection with the individual as soon as possible and ask what they need to feel safe. Listen to any support people or family members nearby who are familiar with the person. They may be able to provide tips on how to calm the person down and establish good rapport.

Stimming (self-stimulating behaviors, such as hand-flapping, rocking, spinning, or repetition of words and phrases)

Allow the person to stim as needed—stimming often helps people process anxiety. Ask what the person needs to help with effective communication. If they can’t communicate with you, first, try giving the person some space, then try again. Some people with I/DD will communicate in ways officers may not expect (for example, through communication cards or apps, gestures, typing, or verbal phrases that may not be recognizable to an officer).

Does not immediately follow commands

Give the person time to fully take in information and make sure the direction or command is understood (in general, wait at least 7 seconds for the information to be processed). Ask the person to repeat the direction or command in their own words. Officers can also physically demonstrate what they would like the individual to do.

Will not look officer in the face or make eye contact

Don’t assume that lack of eye contact is a lack of respect or that the person is hiding something; instead, consider if this it may be a typical response by the person. For some people with I/DD, eye contact can feel very intimidating and uncomfortable.

Does not seem to understand what is being said (for example, Miranda rights), or seems to be pretending to understand

Ask the person to repeat back what was just said using their own words. Do this check for understanding after each sentence. Ask the person what is needed to help communication. Ensure the person has an attorney, or other support person who can advocate for the person, present to help protect the individual’s rights.

Quickly and easily admits to committing a crime

Move forward cautiously, as people with intellectual disability may be easily pressured by so-called friends and others to falsely confess, in an attempt to please and feel accepted by others. Ensure the person’s attorney or other advocate is on the scene, and ensure the attorney is present during questioning, to protect the person’s rights.

Is hesitant to report victimization or share what happened in a clear, logical, or consistent way

Ask the person what would help them feel safe to talk about what happened. Tell the person you believe them. Let the person tell their story in their own way and in their own time. Being traumatized, in addition to having a disability, can make it that much more difficult for someone to report victimization.

By slowing things down and assessing the situation, officers are increasing safety for themselves and for people with I/DD. They are also acting in compliance with disability rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Officers are not expected to be able to diagnose I/DD or be held to clinical standards of knowledge about these disabilities, but by taking a few minutes to fully assess a situation, officers can ensure everyone’s safety and respond to the person with I/DD more effectively.

Individuals with I/DD and the larger disability community need to believe that when they interact with law enforcement, they will be respected, treated fairly, not experience discrimination, and will have a voice in the criminal justice process. Building stronger lines of communication between the disability and policing communities will go a long way toward building meaningful relationships and ensuring that a traditionally marginalized population receives the same access to policing services as those without disabilities.

See the Arc’s website for further information on serving those with I/DD.

Leigh Ann Davis, Director
Criminal Justice Initiatives, The Arc of the United States

Ariel Simms, Senior Program Manager & Attorney
Criminal Justice Initiatives, The Arc of the United States

Melissa Bradley, Senior Policy Analyst
COPS Office

Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities Podcast Series

This special series takes an in-depth look at measures that law enforcement officers and agencies can use to more effectively and appropriately serve individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The series features representatives from The Arc of the United States, the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; Chief Will Johnson of the Arlington Police Department (TX) and University of University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Amy Watson; and founder of the Growth Through Opportunity program, Travis Atkins.

The Arc Resources to Inform Law Enforcement about I/DD

Leigh Ann Davis and Ariel Simms from The Arc of the United States provide an overview of The Arc's National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability, and explain what resources their organization makes available to law enforcement. The Arc is the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Listen/Download | Read Transcript

Applying Procedural Justice to People with I/DD

Chief Will Johnson from the Arlington Police Department (TX) and Professor Amy Watson from the University of Illinois at Chicago discuss applying procedural justice to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Listen/Download | Read Transcript

Promising Practices for Officers Interacting with I/DD

Leigh Ann Davis from The ARC of the United States and Travis Atkins, a retired officer and founder of the Growth Through Opportunity program share Promising Practices for officers as they interact with individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Listen/Download | Read Transcript

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