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Are Cops Properly Trained To Deal With People With Disabilities?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Diana Nyad is recovering from her history-making swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. We remembered that we spoke with her before a previous attempt and she told us what got her going on this quest. We'll reprise some of that conversation for you later in the program. First, though, our weekly parenting conversation. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we try to check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, we go back to a subject you might think you've heard before. Now we've talked previously about teaching kids to deal with the police. And you might have heard about the talk that black and Latino parents often feel they have to have with their children. Today, though, we want to talk about the unique challenge that parents of disabled children face in teaching their kids to deal with the police and teaching police how to approach their children. And now we're using the term children here, but we're really often talking about teenagers and young adults. And this is in the news right now because of the death of Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome. He died in January when off-duty police officers moonlighting as security guards tried to remove him from a movie theater in Frederick, Maryland when the movie was over. Although a health aide was there and tried to explain the situation to the officers, they pinned him to the ground and eventually he stopped breathing.

Now the sheriff's office in Frederick County, Maryland has cleared their officers of any wrongdoing, but the young man's family is pressing for further review. And the case has also raised questions about whether authorities should be better trained in better ways to interact with disabled people. We wanted to talk about this with three people who have perspective on this issue, and who we think will be helpful. We've called Ron Hampton. He served as a police officer for more than 20 years. He's now the president of the Autism Society in Washington, D.C., and he's the father of a 28-year-old son with autism. Welcome, Ron Hampton, thanks for joining us.

RON HAMPTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also joining us, David Perry. He's a history professor at Dominican University. His 6-year-old son has Down syndrome. He wrote about Ethan Saylor and his own experiences with his son for CNN.com and The Nation. David Perry, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID PERRY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, once again, Julie van der Poel. She's a staff writer for AutismAfter16.com. Her 18-year-old son has autism spectrum disorder, and she's been with us from time to time to talk about issues related to autism. Welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

JULIE VAN DER POEL: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Ron, I'm going to start with you because you have these two hats. I mean, first as a parent and as a person with deep experience in law enforcement. And I wanted to ask you if over the course of your career, did you ever have any training in how to deal with people with disabilities, whether they're visible or invisible?

HAMPTON: Well, I happened to be doing my police tenure during the time they torn down Saint Elizabeth's and Forest Haven. And when they did, they went from institution to community settings, and yes they did. They provided some very elementary, foundational kind of training for us officers because a lot of the community settings were in the community and neighborhoods. And I worked in Adams Morgan at that time, and it was important to get that training. I remember several encounters with people who were off their medicines and what not, and so the training was very valuable. It was very specific, too. That's different than what we have today.

MARTIN: Tell us about today. What's different and why is it different? You'd think there would be, perhaps, more not less, since there's more awareness now of disabilities that aren't always visible to the eye.

HAMPTON: Oh, no. I totally agree, and you would think that it would be more specialized training. But I tend to think that what's happening there - and I'm not there - but I tend to think what's happening there is that they're doing training for mental illness, and autism and Down syndrome is very different than mental illness. You can have a mental illness and be on your medicine and be fine. You can be off your medicine and be very different. But autism and Down syndrome is something that's with the individual all of the time, and there's some very specific things like the gentleman in Frederick. If I were to tell my son to stand still and wait there 'til I come back, he would be there.

And if somebody tried to move him, he wouldn't want to move because he remembered me telling him to be there, and he doesn't talk either. But he will have a reaction to you trying to actually move him from the spot that he's standing in. Or his aide - now he will pay attention to his aide, and the same for people who have Down syndrome. So I don't believe that the police department training is that specific, is specialized in that area. And that's the problem because when the police run into situations like that where somebody pushes back, they have a tendency to resort to force, sometime deadly force. Sometimes like what happened to Mr. Saylor. So you have to be careful.

MARTIN: Julie, have you ever had encounters with the police involving your son, who's now a legal adult? He's 18 now.

VAN DER POEL: Yeah, unfortunately, his encounter with police was as a victim. And he was assaulted in the workplace by another individual that had disabilities. And at the time, my son was 17. He was interviewed by the police for over an hour, and I wasn't present during the interview and I wished I had been. A detective followed up with us at our home. But, you know, even during the interview at our home, the detective would be asking my son questions that I didn't think my son would understand.

And I would try to jump in and give him a better understanding of what the detective was looking for, and I was waved off because you can't interfere with the witness's testimony, apparently. So, you know, even as parents think, well, my son will never, you know, be a behavior problem to be involved with police, or not a wanderer to be sought after by police because he's run away, there are situations where they're going to encounter the police that you aren't prepared for. So, you know, it's just a matter of thinking outside the box and being prepared as best you can.

MARTIN: David Perry, your son is quite young, but what does a case like this bring up for you?

PERRY: Well, I recognize in a lot of the descriptions of the incidents behaviors that I know are familiar - that are familiar to me from being with my son. And so for me, it's not a question of immediately trying to respond to something that's happening right now, but what am I going to do over the next 12 years to get my son ready for experiences like this? What can I do with him, but also, what can I do by writing about it and talking to police and trying to shift - to prepare society for him as well as prepare him for society?

MARTIN: So, Julie, have you ever had a talk with your son about the - interacting with the police? Now I hope you don't mind my pointing out that you're white, and so, you know, in this area that - I don't know that that's as necessarily top of the mind for you in the way that it is for a lot of minority parents. We've discussed that for a lot of minority parents it is top of the mind, particularly when they have a son they've considered kind of an essential part of preparing a child to be in those teenage years. Had you had conversations with your son about how to deal with the police? Has that been part of his education?

VAN DER POEL: Not specifically. You know, I've never been a victim of a stop-and-frisk. I never really thought of the police being anything other than there to serve and protect. And my son has always been told - because he's - you know, one of the things that all parents strive for with children with disabilities is more independence. So I've, you know, taken a big leap of faith and let my son have a lot of independence, and he's thrived with that. So when he travels independently, I say, if you get lost, look for someone with a uniform. So we've always, you know, had that idea that there's somebody to help you, and it's not somebody that's going to hurt you.

MARTIN: But, the idea that his communication strategies might fail him in a time of crisis is something that you're now grappling with.


MARTIN: And it really hadn't occurred to you before he was a victim himself, and needed to advocate for himself and wasn't... So, Ron Hampton, what about that? I mean, what - are you aware of any departments that have more specialized discussion here? I mean, this is - I think a lot of people are asking why would the police have felt it necessary to tackle or pin down this young man whose disruption was that he didn't want to leave the movie theater and, as you mentioned, had been told to stay and wait for his aide to come back?

HAMPTON: Well, I think the police response is embedded in their training, in their education, if you will, about how to handle situations. And unfortunately, police are sort of trained that if they get pushback or if they get resistance, then they, you know, they resort immediately to some kind of force. You know, it don't have to be deadly force, but it's some kind of force rather than to think the situation back out, rather than to step back and think about it. Last year sometime, there was an African-American teenager down in Loudoun County who was standing in front of the library waiting on his mother to pick him up - African-American again. And he was approached by the police 'cause someone had called the police about this guy standing in front of the library.

And when the police approached him, they were in their law-enforcement mode. And rather than to try to give some analysis to the situation, they immediately was very authoritative in their approaching him, and then it resulted in pushing and shoving. And they ended up charging the guy with a assault on a police officer. And I say all that to say that at the end of the day, one of the officers involved in that had a son with autism. And so the other thing about it was is that he should have known certain indicators in the way this young man was acting.

MARTIN: Well, given that a lot of people don't seem to know these things, what are things, in your view, that we should be - we only have a limited time today - are there some things that parents can be talking about or that law enforcement you would hope would be thinking about as we go forward here?

HAMPTON: Well, I just so happen to have with me a card that lays out, people on autism spectrum may - not understand what you say, appear deaf. On the other side, helpful hints for interacting with someone who has autism - speak slowly and use simple language, use concrete terms, repeat simple questions. So it's that kind of literature that's out there. You can get it on the website for the National Autism Society. Matter of fact, it's right here in Bethesda, Maryland. The other thing you could do is - a lot of organizations have this information, but from a law-enforcement perspective, for parents to push for and professionals to push for specialized training in this area.

And I know that there are a variety of parent groups all over the country that's attempting to interact with law-enforcement agencies to sort of provide this kind of training, at least get it spearheaded so that they can be a part of it. And that's the other thing, that parents should be involved in the training.

MARTIN: David Perry, what would you hope would happen as a result of this very unfortunate situation, which I mean, presumably, will be reviewed at another level. But what would you hope would happen since you've been writing about this yourself?

PERRY: I think there's two things that we can do. One is on the parents, and Ron's discussion of the card. The aide was there. She was young. She was inexperienced, in this case with Ethan Saylor. But there's no indication from the police report that she had anything on paper that she could hand one of the officers saying, look, stop what you're doing. Read this.


PERRY: And it does seem to me that that's something we can do. We can make sure that we have written down safety plans, ready to go, whoever is responsible has them whether it's the person themselves, if they can self-advocate. The other thing, though, is to turn to the police and really say, look, when you're in a situation with disability - and in the Ethan case, everyone recognized that he had some kind of disability, some people were more aware than others - and say, if no one is in danger, if there's no immediate danger, then you have to invest some patience into a situation.

HAMPTON: Right. Right.

PERRY: And that, to me, there's nothing - if you just - I've now looked at a lot of these cases where police and someone with a disability interact and some kind of bad outcome follows. And if all you did was invest a little more patience in it, almost all of them would've worked out differently.


MARTIN: Julie, is there something that you've changed in the way you talk to your son about the police? Or is there something you feel you now have to do after this negative experience that you have to do to better prepare him for interactions? Because, as I think in the Ethan Saylor case, people say that they recognized that there was some disability, but a lot of times people who have disabilities, people don't recognize that they have them. Is there something that you feel you can do to better prepare him?

VAN DER POEL: Well, I think...

MARTIN: Because as you've talked before about the need to give independence to young people...


MARTIN: Particularly as they enter the adult years?

VAN DER POEL: Well, I think one thing that we really haven't addressed in this conversation is that you can also be proactive in intervening with the police. You can go take a field trip with your child, young adult to the police station, show them around. Somebody with sensory integration issues is going to be put off by a police squawking radio when they walk up to them, or the police sirens. And somebody who is afraid of the police might become calmer if you introduce them in a friendly setting. So as there needs to be more training with the police and general awareness of disabilities, I think that parents can be proactive and make sure the police know their child and, you know, you can have your home flagged as a disability - have a person with a disability lives in this...

MARTIN: Can you really do that in a place as large as the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area?

VAN DER POEL: Yeah. I mean, in the case of Stephon Watts in Chicago - this was another horrible case where the police used deadly force and killed a young man who wouldn't go to school. The police knew that that was an autism household and that he had behavior disorders. You know, all the fail-safes were in place there and it was just another tragedy. But you just go in - and one of my fellow writers on AutismAfter16.com, Jerry Turning, is also a police officer with a son with autism. And he wrote an amazing article about, you know, scenarios - pretending the police didn't know and submitting a scenario where the police did know that they were dealing with a person with autism - and the outcomes are vastly different. And, you know, he gives some tips.

HAMPTON: Well, I was going to say just one of the things that we can ask for right now is that providers provide their people with - aides, with identification that they can wear, for example, around their neck that would identify them as an aide to a person with intellectual or developmental disabilities. And that - train those aides to be assertive in terms of talking to the police about the person that they work with and work for about their situation. You cannot stand back and watch a situation develop and then not say nothing about it, or think that you can say something about it after the encounter has happened.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both - thank you all for speaking with us. It's a very difficult and, obviously, emotionally challenging sort of thing to talk about, particularly if you have a child who's also in this situation. So I thank you all for speaking with us. I'm sure we're going to be talking again about this. Ron Hampton's a former police officer, the father of a 28-year-old son with autism. He is now serving as president of the Autism Society in Washington, D.C., with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Julie van der Poel, staff writer for AutismAfter16.com. Her 18-year-old son has autism spectrum disorder. David Perry was also with us from Chicago. He's a history professor at Dominican University, and his 6-year-old son has Down syndrome. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

HAMPTON: Thank you.

VAN DER POEL: Thank you.

PERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.