Disabilities offer special dangers in police confrontations

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Being in law enforcement is a tough job, hours of boredom punctuated by occasional, swift, life-or-death decisions that can have consequences for the rest of the officers’ lives as well as those with whom they come in contact.

Thankfully, most of those decisions are the correct ones, thanks to training and experience.

Occasionally, however, human shortcomings can short-circuit the best agency policies and preparations.

Civil liberties advocate John W. Whitehead collects the worst examples of the latter in a recent column (http://bit.ly/2y334QU) pointing out the special dangers faced by citizens with disabilities such as being autistic, deaf, mentally ill, disabled or simply old.

They included an 89-year-old grandfather, reportedly in the early stages of dementia, tasered outside his car after a chase; a 21-year-old suffering a mental health crisis, approaching police with a closed pocketknife, shouting “Shoot me!”; and a 36-year-old deaf man seen holding a two-foot metal pipe on his front porch, shot and killed on his front porch. He couldn’t hear police ordering him to drop the pipe, which he used to fend off stray dogs.

A 26-year-old man with Down syndrome died from asphyxiation, probably from a choke hold, after being ejected from a theater by off-duty officers working as security, when he tried to sit through a second screening of a film.

Others include a 7-year-old with severe ADHD and mood disorder, struck with a baton, tasered and handcuffed, and numerous cases of people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other disabilities.

Chalk these situations up as one more reason to be grateful to be living in a small community where everyone knows everyone, and police are more likely to have experience with anyone known to have problematic disabilities.

Plus, officers are more likely to favor natural “de-escalation tactics” when dealing with disabled individuals, such as speaking calmly, giving people space and being patient.

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to receive appropriate training, and, as Whitehead contends, with an emphasis on being “peace officers” rather than “military warriors.”

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