Skip to main content

When Cops Perceive Differences as Danger

Why police need special training on how to interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
(Photo: J J/Flickr)

(Photo: J J/Flickr)

In a San Francisco group home in 2008, a mentally disturbed woman named Teresa Sheehan was armed with a knife and threatening violence. Two police officers who arrived at the scene shot and killed her. A case about how this unfortunate episode could be litigated made its way to the Supreme Court this year, and the Court’s decision came down on Monday.

The Court ruled that the officers should be immune to criminal charges for their actions, because, at the time of the shooting, it was an open question whether the Fourth Amendment required police to have special considerations or different methods for dealing with people with mental illness who seem to be posing a threat.

Seven years after that shooting, the question is as relevant as ever. In part because of a number of recent high-profile confrontations with deadly outcomes, police departments are debating new policies to prevent any more. They continue to reckon with the unfortunate fact that mentally disturbed, and sometimes violent, people make up a large part of officers’ daily interactions with their communities. Mental health task forces are gaining traction in New York City, Albuquerque, Phoenix, San Antonio, and elsewhere—task forces that aim to train officers in de-escalating situations, and then offer more options for next steps than just a jail cell.

When people have trouble expressing themselves, they may communicate pain or frustration in other ways that police officers may interpret as being defiant or destructive.

The deaths of mentally ill suspects or bystanders at the hands of police are the stories that tend to get the most media attention, because of their dramatic nature as well as because of their tragic results. But what about people who suffer from problems that lay deeper under the surface? How well are police equipped to encounter people with other types of disabilities? There has been less attention paid to interactions between police and people with intellectual or developmental disabilities—those people who are not mentally ill, and may not be acting violently or obviously in distress, but who may require extra care all the same.

As the result of a Justice Department lawsuit, Tennessee announced a new training program for police officers about how to respond to people with such disabilities. Training materials put out last month by the state’s Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities tell the story of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome who died in 2013 from asphyxiation while in police custody after he refused to leave a movie theater after he watched Zero Dark Thirty. The training booklet explains that people with Down syndrome, as with other disabilities, “often have difficulty processing information,” and “often become more resistant under time pressure,” as was the case when cops tried to get Saylor to leave the theater before the next showing began.

When people have trouble expressing themselves, they may communicate pain or frustration in other ways that police officers may interpret as being defiant or destructive. Those on the autism spectrum may respond to stress by making loud noises, physically lashing out, or even starting to hurt themselves. This can cause an interaction with officers to unnecessarily escalate—especially when the officers aren’t even aware of the disabilities that person they’re confronting may have.

The responsibility to take extra care extends to custody and interrogations, as well—especially with developmentally disabled children. People of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities may not only have trouble understanding their rights, but may, as two British psychologists put it, a certain “susceptibility to acquiescence, suggestibility, compliance, and confabulation.” They may answer questions in the affirmative, trying to please the interrogator by saying what they think he or she expects to hear. The same researchers found, by observing police interviews, that these people are more vulnerable to leading questions, and to gradually shifting their answers in response to negative feedback they receive.

For these reasons and more, Tennessee’s DIDD training book encourages officers to approach situations slowly and calmly, to take cues from the people accompanying those they’re trying to feel out, and to “Apply the maxim, ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’”

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.