More people with intellectual disabilities than without are involved in police encounters and the criminal justice system in the United States. Too often the result of the encounters ends in injury, incarceration, or death for the person who really needed help. Statistics show clearly that people with disabilities are more likely to be the victim of crimes than perpetrators. While many police departments around the country pay lip service only to "inclusivity" and "sensitivity training," a department in Maryland is walking the walk.
Prince George's County is just north of Washington, D.C. in Maryland, and home to the wealthiest majority-minority population in the United States. It also just elected it's first woman as County Executive, Angela Alsobrooks. Their school system educates the largest number of students with disabilities in the state. This makes the partnership between Prince George's Police Department and the Maryland Department of Disabilities so fitting, and such an encouraging move forward.
Police officers in Maryland are required to get training on how to handle interactions with people with disabilities. But the law doesn’t say how police academies should achieve that goal. Starting this fall at Prince George’s Community College, people with disabilities are doing the teaching — and they’re doing it through improv.
During one recent training, trainers acted out a short play in front of a small audience: A mom can’t get her teenage son to stop playing video games. Things escalate, and soon the son threatens to hurt her. She calls the police. When they arrive, she tells them her son has autism. Eventually, he opens his bedroom door for the officers, who take the time to calm him down. The mother, son and police officers in the play were all acting, but some elements feel real: The scene was unscripted, the officers are actual police officers and the man playing the son does have autism.
According to the ACLU, "in 2018 alone, police have shot and killed 64 people with mental health disabilities." There are laws that guide how police are required to proceed when dealing with those with disabilities, and when they don't, consequences are tragic and deadly. Rarely are officers held accountable for such deaths. According to the ACLU:
When police know — or should know — that they are interacting with a person with a disability, police have a legal obligation to proceed in ways that take into account the person’s disability. Most such changes are simple: recognize that it may take time for the person to understand what is happening, create a calm environment, have one person communicate simply and clearly, allow time for the person to respond to questions or instructions, and exercise patience.
Prince George's County Police Department is taking the steps of learning how to do just that with role-play, through the program developed by Lisa Schoenbrodt and Leah Saal, professors at Loyola University. They trained 10 individuals with disabilities for a wide range of scenarios, which they'll take to the Prince George's Police Academy in the Fall. They'll do improv with the police officers, under the guidance of Schoenbrodt and Saal, and Percy Alston, who is the director of the Academy. The program is considered "best practices" because it includes people who have disabilities, rather than simply hiring people without disabilities to portray them in the role-playing situation. This creates a more authentic scenario for the police officers, and helps them practice patience, deescalation, and calm. All the while, the person with a disability who has been hired has been trained thoroughly, reassured, and understands this is a role-play situation, and that they are safe.
Jennifer Eastman, the Director of Community Living Policy at the Maryland Department of Disabilities, says police officers need to understand how to adjust their behavior when working with someone who has this type of disability.
“Law enforcement goes in with the need to establish control within a situation. That’s what they’re trained for, and that’s not always well received or understood by the person with the disability,” Eastman says.
We often talk about the need for inclusivity and representation in hiring, and the need for deescalation training for police officers. This program in Prince George's County, MD incorporates all of it, for the massively critically important purpose of reducing harm inflicted by police on people with disabilities. Kudos to all of them.