Disability Training for Police Now Mandatory in Maryland

February 17, 2016

Maryland Police force logo behind a group of uniformed law enforcement officers. Maryland has become the first U.S. state to require disability training for its police. It's a breakthrough for disability rights. The disability sensitivity training program is the very first of its kind in the country. The training will include a four-hour seminar to discuss issues particularly affecting the community, and how to deal with people with disabilities in the course of routine police work. This includes people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

This groundbreaking initiative has come about as a result of a tragic incident in 2013, when 26-year-old Robert Saylor, who had Down’s Syndrome, went to the movie theatre with his friend and did not want to leave once the film had finished. After the staff called the police, his caretakers warned the officers that Saylor did not like being touched. The police still grabbed and restrained him, since he was struggling to free himself from them. Within minutes, he was experiencing respiratory problems and ultimately died after police and medical first responders were unable to resuscitate him. Saylor is just one in a long list of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. who have lost their lives at the hands of police. This list includes individuals who have trouble understanding orders from the police, and people who get confused easily in chaotic public environments, many of whom are no threat to anyone, but are still classified as dangerous.

Although the police officers in the above case were not convicted of any crime, the event became a turning point for disabled rights in Maryland, following a  furious response by activists, who pressured state authorities to take action to prevent further incidents of the kind. The result was an innovative disability training program, which is not only unique in being the first such program of its kind, but also, because disabled people themselves are heavily involved in the leadership and teaching of it.

Officers stand to benefit greatly from the training, since their job involves responding very rapidly to a variety of situations which they may not understand fully. The training encourages them to focus on public safety and health. Many law enforcement bodies have little or no training in this area, and the cost for individuals with disabilities is a high one. This training should prove useful not just in dealing with special needs folks, but more broadly in its application. Police are taught deescalation techniques for handling the general public, which means being able to resolve situations in more neutral, non-violent ways.

Police officers who actually meet with differently-abled, such as those assisting in the training program, are better able to respond to their needs in critical situations. It's widely hoped that Maryland’s training will pave the way for other states to implement similar legislation, consequently making the world safer for everyone.

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