Would Police Help Your Child With Special Needs? Are You Sure?

People with disabilities are twice as likely to become victims of crime as as those without disabilities, per The National Crime Victim Survey. What doesn’t seem to have been studied: How often people with disabilities are likely to be harmed by police who are not aware of how to handle them.

This is an issue recently thrust in to the public eye with the tragic death of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome. As is widely known by now, back in January Saylor was at a movie theater and refused to leave because he wanted to see the next show. After authorities were called, Saylor resisted attempts to be removed and grew agitated. The officers pinned him down on his stomach and handcuffed him, letting up only when Saylor showed signs of distress. His death was ruled a homicide, by asphyxiation.

His death, and the lack of criminal charges pressed against the officers, has caused an uproar in the Down syndrome community. But it’s also been incredibly unsettling to others who have loved ones with disabilities. It’s made parents like me hyper-aware that adults who are unable to communicate as others can, who get upset by certain situations and who may not be able to follow orders are at risk of being considered disobedient by police, risking harm. Max, who has cerebral palsy, will grow up to be that adult, most likely. And what if, even now, he got lost in a crowd? What if he wigged out? What the average policeman know how to handle him? No, I think.

It was heartening to read that this week, New York State rolled out the first ever sensitivity training for police offers to help them better interact with people who have developmental disabilities. Although the First Responders Disability Awareness Training is not mandated by the state, New York’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council pushed for funding it. Currently, as seems to be the case in other states, New York has no protocol for arresting and charging suspects with developmental disabilities.

The American’s With Disabilities Act website offers publications that inform law enforcers about handling people with disabilities. How many police officers actually read them, or get any training, is a big, worrisome question mark. Sometimes, decency and common sense alone won’t help.

I have enough concerns about how my son will navigate this world as he grows up. I hope that authorities in cities and states around the country learn from the tragedy of Robert Ethan Saylor and, in the coming years, start training their police to better understand people with disabilities—and do right by them.

Hopefully, non-profits that advocate for the disabled will keep pushing for this. People who have loved ones with disabilities can call their local police precincts and ask for this. Meanwhile, I’ll be holding Max’s hand extra tightly when we’re out.

Image of police hat and club via Shutterstock

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  1. by Laura Beltz

    On April 25, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Thanks for this! Its something I worry about a lot. My son has epilepsy, is intellectually disabled and has major behavior issues. Now that he is getting older I think about this more and more. He is 11 now but I’ve already had police contact due to his behavior and I really think they have a very limited understanding of people with special needs.

  2. by Katrina Moody

    On April 30, 2013 at 6:43 am

    This terrifies me too Ellen – with three boys having autism, epilepsy, and other diagnoses, I find myself on red-alert half the time when we are out and about. I read about horrific stories and hold them even tighter when we’re out and about as well. But also, it makes me want to educate others when we are out. I am sometimes overly open and talkative, simply because I have this (perhaps irrational) hope that by educating each additional person I can make the world a slightly safer place for my guys.

  3. by Jerry Turning

    On April 30, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Hi Ellen,

    Your concerns are valid and shared by a lot of families, including mine. I am a police officer and Autism Dad in NJ. I’ve made it my mission to bridge the gap between special needs families and their local police officials. There are a lot of good people working on this issue. I invite you and your readers to join me at http://www.facebook.com/PoliceAndAutismBridgingTheGap. I think we can learn a lot from each other.