Despite a myriad of programs and trainings across the country, individuals with disabilities who exhibit "suspicious" behavior, and may lack communication and social skills, could result in a police officer’s ability to appropriately respond to and handle calls – which may result in higher rates of excessive force and incarceration.
Across their lifespan, people with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to come into contact with police, either as a victim or as a perpetrator of a crime – this includes students, according to a scientific article authored by Lindsay Diamond of the University of Nevada, Reno and published in the SAGE journal publication Intervention in School and Clinic.
"For years, policing and working with individuals with disabilities has been a topic of conversation in my household," Diamond, assistant professor of special education in the Educator Preparation program in the College of Education & Human Development, said. "Having a husband who is an officer and many family members and friends who work for various agencies, I have always been interested in the interactions between police and individuals with disabilities.
"In the last five years, this interest area has grown due to the events portrayed in the media, and I realized it was time to take some action. I conducted a study across the state to determine what is happening in Nevada."
Specifically, these publicized incidences across the country have raised concerns regarding an officer’s ability to appropriately respond to and de-escalate situations involving a person with a disability. To address these concerns, researchers, including Diamond and her graduate student in the College of Education & Human Development, have sought to determine the perceptions of police officers toward people with disabilities, as these perceptions and biases will influence police officers’ ability to effectively respond to and handle calls for service.
A police officer’s perceptions about people with disabilities are formed over time and often based on their personal life experience, on-the-job training and job experience. However, while some officers report a greater understanding of people with disabilities, the results of many officers’ actions highlight the inability to differentiate between someone with or without a disability.
Diamond and her co-author Lindsey Hogue, also in the University's special education academic program of the College of Education & Human Development, found that while there are many trainings throughout the country, the content, quality and mode of delivery is inconsistent across states, schools and law enforcement agencies.
"This variability calls for the need for a structured and systematic training approach for both students with disabilities and police," they concluded.
Following the study on these interactions and how police and people with disabilities prepare for these interactions, Diamond and Hogue at the University of Nevada, Reno have proposed a two-pronged training and education approach to prepare the two groups for more successful interactions.
In their peer-reviewed article, "Preparing Students with Disabilities and Police for Successful Interactions" published in February 2021, the authors present a general overview of the two-pronged training approach.
"We are designing an updated training and hope to have our first trainings within the next six months," she said. "To begin, we will have the training locally as well as statewide and then we will promote the training on a national level. We have a Community Safety Committee that is focused on first responder trainings. In addition to the committee, we have a graduate student and a couple of teachers from the Washoe County School District helping with the content development."
Using her findings from the study as a guide, Diamond is working with the JUSTin Hope Foundation to design and implement training for first responders in Nevada. The foundation works with families and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities by promoting inclusion and creating opportunities through education, training and family support.
Diamond and Hogue recommend that after the initial disability awareness training, police officers should complete an annual training as part of their mandatory training block.
"This will ensure that all officers are continually introduced to the topic of disabilities," they wrote. "The ongoing annual training should be modified to present a review of disabilities and provide opportunities for practice working through case studies and video scenarios. This type of annual training can be delivered using a face-to-face format or through an online platform with built in assessments."
Likewise, students and others with disabilities need to be prepared to interact with the police; the onus is on practitioners to teach police awareness skills to students with disabilities. Diamond will independently develop a training curriculum for individuals with disabilities outside of the work being done with the JUSTin Hope foundation.
"In addition to this content we are currently collecting data from families and adults with disabilities to identify what supports are needed for families and IWDs when interacting with first responders," she said.
Diamond recommends that the training for students with disabilities and police officers should be delivered using ongoing interactive instructional approaches and techniques that provide ample opportunities for the application of knowledge and skills learned through social narratives, video modeling and role play with officers.
Diamond teaches courses at the graduate level and is the project director for the Nevada Collaborative: Interdisciplinary Training to Improve Educational Opportunities for Young Children with Autism. NVC is an interdisciplinary personnel preparation program funded by the United States Department of Education through the Office of Special Education Programs to address statewide shortages of qualified personnel serving young children with autism spectrum disorder who have high-intensity needs by training Early Childhood Special Educators and Speech-Language Pathologist scholars.