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Training to deal with suspects with disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 stipulates that cops must make "reasonable accommodations" to the known physical limitations of a suspect

In part one of this series, we explored the reasons why agencies and trainers should conduct training regarding the searching and handcuffing of persons with physicals disabilities. I learned about the need for this training a few years back based on some legal decisions being handed down. We inserted a training block into the Basic Academy Defense and Arrest Tactics program and have been doing it ever since. We added this training not only because of the risk of a failure-to-train claim but more importantly because it was the right thing to do. Here, we will discuss some of the techniques, tactics, and training we have put together in order to train to this issue.

Get Trainees Thinking About ADA
A simple discussion of the Americans with Disabilities Act is needed to start the topic. Many of the students will know someone with a physical disability, including:

1.) a paraplegic or quadriplegic person in a wheelchair
2.) a person with an amputated limb without a prosthetic
3.) a person with an amputated limb with a prosthetic
4.) a person with an obvious or known physical disability that cannot be handcuffed in a traditional manner

This is an easy ice breaker to get the students talking about the different types of physical disabilities a person may have that an officer might have to search or handcuff. Ask one of the students that has a family member or close friend that is physically disabled how they would feel if an officer did not make reasonable accommodations for the disability.

Training By Storytelling
There are some examples that the trainer can use in order to demonstrate the need for this training and how some officers did not act in a manner that could be described as reasonably accommodating. Storytelling — as long as it is focused and purposeful — is an age old and effective way to teach. The instructor can take the trainees along with the story and then ask them to discover a more appropriate response. If there are no cases for the trainer to talk about, consider these two as pointed examples:

Four California police officers removed a 35-year-old quadriplegic man from his wheelchair and hung him over a concrete wall to search him. The man was hospitalized for six days for injuries sustained during the arrest. Although the officers were cleared of criminal charges, a jury awarded the man $80,000 from the city for violating his civil rights.

Another quadriplegic man was dumped from his wheelchair as he was entering a Florida jail facility. He was going to be booked for an alleged traffic violation and needed to be searched before entering the secure facility. Surveillance video showed the deputy lifting the chair from behind and the man falling from his wheelchair onto the floor. Later the deputies are seen searching him while he lay on the ground. The video raised concerns about police treatment of the disabled after being widely circulated on news channels and YouTube.

Reasonable Accommodations
The principle of “reasonable accommodations” should be clear to the students before any physical training is conducted. Another concept that should be fully grasped by the student should be to treat everybody with dignity and respect. There should be no big secret here but as we can see from the examples above, sometimes we fall far short in our actions.

The students should be aware of how to communicate with a person with a physical disability. The person with the disability is well aware of it and therefore there is no reason to act as if it does not exist. The officer should not try to “speak around” the disability but rather be professional, honest and forthright about any questions or directions concerning the disability. The officers should not be afraid to discuss the disability or ask an honest question about the disability if it is appropriate to the situation. Asking the person for some advice might go a long way if you need to transport a wheelchair bound person to a jail facility for example.

Now it is time to have a facilitated “instructor question” and “student answer” session. Give the students several examples of physical disabilities, have them work through the problem and discover appropriate solutions. The instructor can ask a question such as, “How would you safely search and handcuff a paraplegic person in a wheelchair?”

There are several points to consider in this question including, but not limited to:

1.) locking the wheelchair in position during the search and handcuffing process
2.) using two officers — one to control the person while the other searches/handcuffs
3.) handcuffing the person behind their back or to the wheelchair — each has their own pros and cons

Officer Safety is Always #1
In any of these discussions, officer safety principles and considerations must be paramount. Providing reasonable accommodations does not equate to officers putting themselves into undue risk. A disabled person can still be a danger. Indeed, the upper body strength of a paraplegic man is generally greater than the average person. An officer that discounts this strength can be easily overpowered and injured.

A discussion on the use of other resources is appropriate. The instructor can pose several questions to determine if the students are aware of these resources. Does your agency have a vehicle that can safely transport a person in a wheelchair? Does your local mental health department provide transportation services? Will your local paramedic service assist you in the transport? The students will be able to make more informed decisions in the field if they have answers to these questions before they actually need them.

It is now time to check to see if the students have learned the necessary points of this lesson. Let the students break up into small groups of three to four people. Give directions to the groups to role play the several examples that were spoken about during the discussion portion of the class. Design the training for success. Encourage the students to work together on their problems. The instructor can help by setting out props for the groups to use if needed. The instructor should be actively involved in monitoring the activities and providing guidance when needed.

After each role-play rotation, the instructor can evaluate the solution. Remember that there are several right ways to accomplish these tasks (far too many to cover in a short article), and a few wrong ways. Giving the students an opportunity to actually find a reasonably accommodating solution and physically complete the task is a great way to reinforce learning. Confucius was quoted to say, "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

If you are interested in knowing more about this type of training or some of the solutions we have discussed, feel free to contact me.

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