Lawmakers consider a bill to add more training for police on how to deal with people with disabilities

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Posted at 10:17 PM, Apr 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-29 00:17:43-04

DENVER — After last summer’s social justice protests, Colorado lawmakers have been looking for ways to add more clarity to the role law enforcement officers play in communities.

Last legislative session, legislators passed the most sweeping policing reforms the state has seen in years with SB20-217.

This session, the work is continuing with several bills from jail reforms to adding more provisions to SB 217 so that it applies to state law enforcement as well.

One bill that is making its way through the legislature would require more training for officers for dealing with someone with disabilities. House Bill 1122 would establish a commission that would look at ways to improve interactions between first responders and people with visible and invisible disabilities.

“We set out to figure out how the disability community can inform the police and how the police can interact with the disability community to have a dialogue that leads to better understanding ,and we hope, of course, harm reduction and better outcomes for both parties,” said Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Englewood, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

The bill has been many months in the making but is getting a new emphasis after Loveland police forcefully arrested and injured a woman with dementia. The incident was caught on camera and has led to a lawsuit and calls for officers involved in the incident to be removed from their positions.

The bill calls for the creation of a 10 person commission comprised of people with disabilities, parents of a child with a disability, first responders, advocacy organizations and a representative from the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (P.O.S.T.) to come up with the training recommendations.

The commission would review policies in other states and current training practices before making recommendations to the P.O.S.T. board by Feb. 28, 2022.

The board would then review the recommendations and could adopt a training curriculum.

“We very much see this bill as part of an effort to increase police accountability and to improve police interactions with folks in our community,” Froelich said. “Really, what needs to happen is law enforcement needs to inform their training by those best practices, but also they really need to listen to the disability community.”

Ali Thompson has a particular interest in this bill. Along with serving as the chair of the Legislative and Public Policy Committee of the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council. She’s also a law enforcement officer and the mother of two children with disabilities.

Thompson’s 12-year-old daughter has a condition called polymicrogyria, which has resulted in intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is also nonverbal and uses sign language to communicate.

Meanwhile, Thompson’s 13-year-old son has autism and can easily become overwhelmed.

“He just comes across as being aggressive, as a lot of folks on the autism spectrum do,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, the training for law enforcement right now isn’t such that a lot of officers aren’t recognizing symptoms of disability.”

Thompson’s son is also tall for his age; he’s 5’8 and now looms over his mother. When he gets overwhelmed, Joe tells his mother it’s like there’s a tornado in his head that he can’t stop and can’t control.

She worries about her son and others with disabilities having negative encounters with police officers where unwarranted force is used.

Thompson knows the training that officers are provided well; she has worked as a law enforcement officer for 20 years and has seen the other side of things as well.

Once, Thompson encountered a man in his 20s with autism whose mother called police on him when he started going through a crisis.

“Police are taught use force to control, to protect him and everyone around him,” she said.

Instead, Thompson was able to work with his mother to come up with a plan and get the man to calm down without having to use force.

“I feel strongly that all officers need training on interacting with people with disabilities,” she said. “Right now, we’re doing a disservice to law enforcement by not providing our officers with tools to allow them to help people.”

Thompson believes the training officers receive is sparse, dated and doesn’t include the voices of the disabilities community. The training is also largely voluntary.

“There are 368 hours of academic instruction that are required in our post academies and only three mentions of people with disabilities in that curriculum,” Thompson said.

Froelich believes this bill will offer an opportunity for officers to learn about invisible disabilities and take a step back to try to determine what is happening before going hands-on.

“Instead of thinking immediately, 'This person is non-compliant, I need to handcuff them,' or, 'I need to use force in order to subdue them,' let’s go through some thoughts. Is this person deaf? Is this person overwhelmed by what is happening?” she said.

The bill has bipartisan support as well as the backing of law enforcement agencies.

“Mandating training to improve interactions with people with disabilities while simultaneously allocating resources will benefit both officers and the citizens they serve,” said Officer Mike Foley from the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police in a statement. “Standardized mental health training would mitigate critical incidents and allow every citizen with a disability to be heard and respected when encountering police officers.”

The bill also has a companion bill that is also making its way through the legislative process. House Bill 1014 would allow people with disabilities to voluntarily disclose information about their condition to the department of revenue.

A flag would then be added to a person’s license plate so that when an officer looks up the number, they can see the driver or one of their regular passengers has a disability. This would allow officers to better understand the situation and better tailor their response.

Another portion of the bill would allow people to voluntarily add a symbol on their license or ID that says they have a disability. However, it doesn’t disclose the type of disability.

This portion of the bill is welcomed by some but not all in the disabilities community. Some worry it could lead to discrimination.

Both bills are currently making their way through the legislature.