Editorial: Police, law enforcement, and disabilities

Kids, parents, educators, and police officers need help.

In 2016, as a part of its report about the Baltimore (MD, US) Police Department's record on civil rights, the US Department of Justice found a record of police department employees, "[i]nteracting with individuals with mental health disabilities in a manner that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act." In response to this report and many news stories documenting violent encounters with individuals with disabilities, some police departments established "crisis intervention teams" and conducted "sensitivity training" for officers.

These activities are laudable, but they are insufficient.

The issue is not limited to the US. Researchers from the University of New South Wales illustrated the problem in Australia. In a paper entitled (in part) "'I feel like I failed him by ringing the police,’" McCausl and and Baldry (2017) discussed aspects of the Australian systems that they argued have especially pernicious effects on individuals with disabilities in that society.

Regardeless of whether it happens in a particular country, difficulties working with police officers may be especially heightened for individuals who live at the intersection of marginalized groups; imagine, if you can, being woman with a disability who goes to report a sexual assault to law enforcement officers (Keilty & Connelly, 2010). How should she be treated and how does that align with how she would be treated?

These analyses seem to me to have been largely focused on adults with disabilities. Given that our kids grow up to be adults with disabilities, educators and parents should be concerned. Given the de-institutionalization push that began in earnest in the 1970s, anyone who walks the downtown streets of US metropolitan areas can see that there is a need for social and mental health services among many impoverished adults in the US.

We don’t want our kids to wind up in such situations, so we need to do more.

But the problem of inopportune physical interactions between police officers and individuals with disabilities is not limited to confrontations between officers and homeless adults. With the increased use of "resource officers" and "zero tolerance" policies in schools, sometimes predicated on mal-aligned beliefs (see Viano et al., 2021), there have been many untoward confrontations between students, especially those with disabilities, and police officers.

At the beginning of her chapter on the intersection of disability, race, and poverty, Merkwae (2015) cited three incidents in which black children aged 10, 11, or 12 years of age who had diagnosed disabilities (autism, bi-polar) were handcuffed, pinned beneath the knee of an officer, or otherwise ill-treated. Two of the children were charged with assaulting the officers who arrested them.

This is not a new problem. In 1995, Cambridge University researchers reported about it (Lyall et al., 1995). I wrote about the problems of police-child interactions repeatedly on EBDBlog between 2005 and 2016. (I'll paste links for Archive.org copies of the posts into the resources section.)

So, wouldn't it be wise to build police training programs that promoted awareness, understanding, and care about disability, especially for children? Reviews of literature about the benefits of programs to improve police officers' sensitivity about citizens with disabilities have been few and the results have not been encouraging, however. For example, in a study reported by scholars with international backgrounds (South Africa, Australia), Viljoen and colleagues (2017) identified fewer than 20 reports about sensitivity training, only three of which met the reviewers' criteria for detailed analysis. They found "limited evidence for the effectiveness of training programmes in improving [police officers'] knowledge and skills" (p. 143).

So, to be sure, there are efforts afoot to address educators' understanding of efforts to use police in schools and to improve interactions between individuals with disabilities and law enforcement officials. See, for example,

  • Using data from School Survey on Crime and Safety, Devlin and Fisher (2021) examined school administrator’s perceptions of the frequency of (a) student racial-ethnic tensions, (b) student bullying, (c) widespread disorder in classrooms, and (d) student gang activities with different approaches to the use of school resource officers.

  • The Association for Science in Autism Treatment published relevant pieces about (a) "ASAT Responds to Changing America’s 'Law enforcement’s efforts at greater autism awareness,'" (b) "First Responders Education in Autism," and (c) "Bolting and Neighborhood Safety."

  • The National Alliance for Mental Health and it's efforts to pursue "policies to ensure people in crisis get help, not handcuffs" at https://www.nami.org/Advocacy/Policy-Priorities/Responding-to-Crises

  • In its position statement, "Ensuring a Safe and Positive Climate in School and Community Settings for Children and Youth with Disabilities," the Council for Exceptional Children (2020) mentioned this issue in this way: "Partnerships with school resource officers or local law enforcement should emphasize proactive, positive relationship building with the school and community. Individuals in these roles should complete training similar to their colleagues in instructional settings that embraces inclusivity and bias-free approaches to working with children and youth."

This laudable efforts notwithstanding, parents and educators need to do more. None of us want to see another child killed or maimed by gunfire or choking.

One high priority effort should be educating law enforcement officials that commands and threats will rarely lead to compliance by children and youth with disabilities, that threatening in a louder voice will not help, that lashing out is the likely response to efforts to control a child physically, that running away is not necessarily a way to hide a weapon or contraband, that the best way to handle problems is to be the adult in the situation—get other kids out of harm's way and to safety, take time, stay calm, solicit help from other adults who are trusted by the individual, remember that damaging a trash can or desk isn't that big a deal, etc.—and we teachers and family members would do well to practice these adult-like behaviors, too!


Council for Exceptional Children. (2020). Ensuring a safe and positive climate in school and community settings for children and youth with disabilities. Author. https://exceptionalchildren.org/sites/default/files/2020-11/School%20Climate%20-%202020.pdf

Devlin, D. S., & Fisher, B. W. (2021) An examination of school resource officers as an approach to reduce social disturbances in schools: Evidence from a national longitudinal study. Journal of School Violence, 20(2), 228-240. https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2021.1875843

Keilty, J., & Connelly, G. (2010) Making a statement: An exploratory study of barriers facing women with an intellectual disability when making a statement about sexual assault to police. Disability & Society, 16(2), 273-291. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687590120035843

Lyall, I., Holland, A. J., Collins, S., & Styles, P. (1995). Incidence of persons with a learning disability detained in police custody: A needs assessment for service development. Medicine, Science and the Law, 35(1), 61-71. https://doi.org/10.1177/002580249503500113

McCausland, R., & Baldry, E. (2017). 'I feel like I failed him by ringing the police’: Criminalising disability in Australia. Punishment & Society, 19(3), 290-309. https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474517696126

Merkwae, A. (2015). Schooling the police: Race, disability, and the conduct of school resource officers. Michigan Journal of Race & Law, 21(2), 147-181.

Viano, S., Curan, F. C., & (2021). Kindergarten cop: A case study of how a coalition between school districts and law enforcement led to school resource officers in elementary schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 43(2), 253-279. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373721989290

Viljoen, E., Bornman, J., Wiles, L., & Tönsing, K. M. (2017). Police officer disability sensitivity training: A systematic review. The Police Journal: Theory, Practice and Principles, 90(2), 143-159. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032258X16674021

An incomplete list of posts to EBDBlog on the topic

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