Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Walking the Safety Tightrope: The Intersection of Law Enforcement and Loved Ones with Disability

The incidence of persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder has increased 4,000 percent over recent decades throughout the world. The chances of law enforcement encountering a person with a disability is 7 times more likely to happen compared to the general population. For those empowered to serve and protect the safety of all citizens in the community, often times law enforcement comes in contact unprepared and untrained to recognize the totality of situations involving those with special needs. This potentially can conclude with an unnecessarily tragic outcome. Realizing the importance of 21st century policing, over 450 jurisdictions throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Israel and Australia have adopted and instituted Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for their officers.

Growing out of a series of bad outcomes in Memphis, Tennessee in 1988, the final one culminating in the death of an individual in crisis from mental illness by police, CIT was conceived. Through the cooperation and collaboration of law enforcement and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a weeklong, 40-hour training program was developed to educate law enforcement. Acting as first responders and often skeptical initially, veteran police officers learn the signs and symptoms of those with developmental, physical and intellectual disability based on their observed behavior and circumstances. They learn to “stop, look and listen.” Ensuring safety as the primary goal for the officer, for the person in crisis and any other citizens present, law enforcement is given the tools to recognize that the person’s actions may be due to disability rather than criminal in nature. Additional skills in de-escalation techniques: active listening, empathy statements and adoption of a calm tone and non-threatening body language increase the likelihood of a safe resolution and outcome for all.

Specific to persons with Autism, officers learn the spectrum of disorders including those who are non-verbal but responsive to non-threatening body language. One incident involved a child who had wandered and was located by an officer at a park and nearby pond. Unable to establish verbal communication, the child moved away each time the officer stepped toward the child. Seeing a ball nearby, the officer picked it up and tossed it toward the boy. The boy eventually returned the ball in the officer’s direction. After some time, the officer established the trust of the child and was able to coax him into the patrol car and safely return him to his home. Officers also gain appreciation for recognizing certain mannerisms, hand flapping, rocking, lack of eye contact and hyper- or hyposensitivity to external stimuli. They know to turn off their sirens and radios and anticipate interest in shiny objects like badges, handcuffs and weapons and take steps to discourage reaching or touching them. They also learn to ask for written identification or look for identifying information sewn in clothing or on shoes and shoelaces. Police learn more about the American with Disabilities Act and how some behavior may not be considered criminal within the parameters of their special needs. Important is the fact that persons with Autism can be unwitting perpetrators of crime. They can be a victim or witness to crime as well and police learn additional investigative tools to respond to those occurrences as well.

Included in the training is the opportunity to meet persons with disabilities, mental illness and substance abuse along with family members and community providers to put a “face” on those not in crisis and learn more about their stories, the impact of living with special needs. Critical to completion of the police training is the opportunity to “role play” with professional actors using their newly acquired skills in a safe monitored environment and be evaluated and critiqued by other veteran trained CIT officers. Up to 75% of those taking the training volunteer with no extra pay involved and do so usually because they have a loved one or know of someone with special needs. They realize that the “Command and Control” approach learned as Cadets in the Academy is unlikely to be successful in contrast to respecting personal space, being calm, empathetic and “thinking outside the box.”

To date, there has not been a single known police force that has instituted CIT policing that has abandoned maintaining the program. Given the degree of initial skepticism and resistance to change along with shrinking funding, this is truly a tribute to the strength and utility of Crisis Intervention Team training. Several jurisdictions have created a special pin to wear on their uniform designating the special training they have received and display it proudly. Many become advocates, active and supportive of disability efforts in their community. In some research studies, the rate of serious bodily injury to persons with disability or to police has been negligible. In addition, the rate of arrest and incarceration went from 90% arrest to 90% diversion to services, if needed, without arrest.

To initiate a program requires identifying a “champion” willing to coordinate and spearhead efforts within each community to tailor a program that fits the needs and resources of that particular region. Clearly, the program will succeed only if it is home grown, uses the expert faculty to teach evidence-based curriculum and involves all stakeholders at the same table during the creation phase. It becomes “more than training,” it becomes reality. Having family members with disabilities, I say it’s about time. Consider becoming proactive if your community lacks a CIT program and remember to request response from a CIT trained officer if a program already exists where you live in case of an emergency or crisis.

Further information can be obtained by visiting or Special thanks to: Chicago Police Department, Cook County Sheriff’s Training Institute, Young Adult Institute, New York, NY, Anixter Center, Chicago, Illinois, Leeda Services, Chicago, Illinois, Jane Addams School of Social Work and Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois, Chicago.


Bruce Handler, MD is Clinical Adjunct Assistant Professor of Medicine at the College of Medicine at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and is the Course Director of Crisis Intervention Team Training at the Cook County Sheriff’s Training Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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