Cops Get Schooled on Intellectual Disabilities

A new training program in Maryland aims to teach police officers how to interact with citizens with intellectual disabilities.

Ethan Saylor, who lost his life after a confrontation with the Howard County police at a movie theater.

Police officers in Howard County, Maryland, will be receiving a new kind of training to teach them how to appropriately handle situations involving people with intellectual disabilities.

In certain situations, people with intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism, may not respond in the same manner as someone who does not have a disability. Training officers in how to react in these circumstances will not only keep citizens safe but could also potentially save lives — which is why the need for such training was identified.

Three years ago, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome, Ethan Saylor, lost his life after a confrontation with Frederick County, Md., sheriff’s deputies at a screening of “Zero Dark Thirty.” The young man refused to leave after the conclusion of the film. After two security guards attempted to remove the man from his seat, he suffered a medical emergency and died.

When Elizabeth Benevides heard this tragic news, it really hit home, as her son is autistic and she is the former president of the Howard County Autism Society. She, along with Lt. Bill Cheuvront, will be spearheading the sensitivity training program, teaching police officers how to interact with citizens who have intellectual disabilities.

The training program centers on being calm in situations where one is dealing with a citizen with autism to avoid unnecessary stimuli that could confuse the citizen and escalate the situation, such as guns, loud noises or flashing lights.

“They may not know not to touch their guns,” said Benevides, whose son often repeats words said to him. “If you’re an officer, you might think that [repeating words] is really flippant.”

The class held a kickoff pizza party with the Howard County Autism Society to supply the officers with hands-on experience interacting with children with autism.

After the tragic death of Saylor, then-Governor Martin O’Malley issued a recommendation that all new recruits be trained on intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Maryland Police Training Commission adopted the recommendation last year.

“Governmental and nongovernmental entities, including law enforcement officials and other first responders, will receive limited training about interacting, supporting, and working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” House Bill 1161, or the Ethan Saylor Alliance for Self-Advocates as Educators, which Governor O’Malley ordered in September 2013, states. “The alliance will advance the ‘community inclusion’ of disabled individuals by educating others.”

Howard County currently has 764 students with autism, which is approximately 16 percent of all students and well above the state average. According to the Howard County Autism Society, many families with children affected by autism move to the county because they have “some of the best early intervention services in the state” and “the school system is better at including children with autism than some of the other counties in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area.”

By next year, the Maryland Police Training Commission has set the goal of having all new recruits and veteran officers trained in interacting with people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

“True inclusion of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, so that the individuals feel welcomed and accepted in their communities,” the bill states, “starts with self–advocates having the central role in educating persons that interact with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

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