Re-Envisioning Police Training in the United States: Fostering Education and Collaboration to Adapt Police Responses to Civilians with Disabilities and Mental Illness

By Alexandra Tourret

Note for readers

               In the United States, there is no national standard for police training nor is there centralized, federal funding for all law enforcement agencies. There are about 18,000 different law enforcement agencies in the U.S., ranging from small county jurisdictions to medium-sized police departments to state and federal agencies. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including municipal, state, and federal governments, as well as local community fundraisers and international organizations such as the IACP. Each law enforcement agency has discretion in its training programs, with state and federal governments and courts sometimes weighing in on training standards. 

Abstract

               The lack of police training on how to recognize and appropriately respond to physical and/or mental disabilities has resulted in the needless mistreatment, injury, and death of persons with disabilities in the United States. Although the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has addressed the inherent rights of such persons, the United States has not ratified the convention and existing police practices in the U.S. demonstrate the need for greater protections for the rights of persons with disabilities. The present essay exposes this problem and advocates for the implementation of required Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training programs within police departments across the United States.

Photo by Katie Rainbow on Pexels.com

Introduction

               In the United States, police encounters with civilians with disabilities or mental illness often end in the use of force. Tragically, many such encounters have resulted in death (Carter-Long 2014; Mental Health First Aid USA 2018). In most cases, this is due to the officers’ lack of training regarding mental illnesses and disability. In particular, they do not know how to recognize the signs, and how to respond appropriately in an encounter. Without any specialized training, officers rely on ‘compliance culture’ (Abrams 2020), a common aspect of police culture that prioritizes the need to gain subject compliance over the needs of those human beings the police come into contact with.  When officers do not receive training on how to respond to persons with a disability, they perceive non-compliance as a form of resisting arrest and are most likely to proceed by using force to gain compliance. Officers’ lack of knowledge and training may also lead them to perceive a person’s actions as threatening when it may simply be a symptom of a disability. Not only do these encounters put both the officer and the civilian at risk of being harmed (Mental Health First Aid USA 2018), but they also violate multiple human rights.  This highlights the need for law enforcement agencies to provide thorough, mandatory mental health and disability training to both recruits and veteran officers.

Disability Rights

               Human rights have long left the specific needs of people with disabilities unaddressed. This changed in 2008, when the United Nations adopted the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, although the United States has only signed and not ratified it (Jones 2013). The Convention seeks to protect the inherent human rights for persons whose disabilities “include long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” (“OHCHR | Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” n.d.).  Some of the rights stated in the convention seem obvious, such as the right to life and freedom from violence and abuse.  Other rights for persons with disabilities include protection in situations of risk, access to justice, liberty and security, and freedom from degrading treatment and punishment.  These rights apply to interactions with police, although there are many cases that show these rights being violated during police encounters. For example, Clifford Owensby, a paraplegic man, was forcibly removed from his car and roughly handled by police (Li and Ciechalski 2021).  Persons with disabilities have the same right to protection from violence- including from police- and access to justice as every other human being. But because the police are not trained to recognize and respond to disabilities, they rely on compliance culture to gain control of the situation, thereby violating human rights.

Underlying issues

               Although many police departments are implementing training programs or courses on mental illness in their academies, only a fraction of the approximately 18,000 police departments in the nation have officers go through CIT training (NAMI n.d.).  Of the training academies that do include a course on mental illness, very little time is spent on the topic of mental illness in comparison to firearms and use of force training (Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform n.d.; NAMI n.d.).  Most police departments are small in size and do not have the resources or time to thoroughly and adequately train officers, as they are desperate to get officers onto the streets.  The vast majority of police academies last about six months (Reaves 2013) before recruits graduate and are put on patrol, a fraction of the time and education expected of members of other professions (Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform n.d.).  Because police academies are so short, many departments do not think they could or should prioritize time being spent on mental illness and disability, especially when compliance culture and the dangerous nature of police work stress the need for officers to be competent in various use of force responses. Furthermore, because there is not an overarching body to regulate policing procedures on a national scale, every police department must decide for itself how to prioritize training and whether they have the resources to provide such intensive- and sometimes costly- training opportunities.

Available Training Resources

               Training police officers to appropriately respond to calls involving persons with disabilities or mental illness can make all the difference in de-escalating a tense situation or saving a life. In many cases, such training can help an officer avoid escalating a situation by observing and respecting the unique needs of the person with mental illness or disability. As concerns over police interactions with persons with disabilities have gained media attention over the last few years, organizations have built or reimagined training programs aimed at providing law enforcement with the knowledge and resources needed to learn how to better respond to calls involving persons with disabilities. The Bureau of Justice Assistance equips law enforcement agencies and officers with multiple Police-Mental Health Collaboration (PMHC) programs that teach officers about the symptoms of mental illnesses, resources available for persons with mental illness or disability, and the best strategies for de-escalating situations involving such persons (Police-Mental Health Collaboration n.d.). These programs also include a ‘peer and family perspectives panel’, a forty-hour course on Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, and an eight-hour course called ‘Mental Health First Aid For Public Safety’ (Police-Mental Health Collaboration n.d.).  Furthermore, these training opportunities are made available to new recruits as well as officers and leaders already serving within police departments.

               The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has also put together a project to supply law enforcement agencies with training resources. The Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center (CRI-TAC) is a service that delivers customized training sessions to police departments and agencies around the country, calling upon experts from numerous fields to share their knowledge and expertise with law enforcement officers (IACP n.d.). Crisis intervention and de-escalation are just two of an array of topics included in the project. In addition, the IACP designed the One Mind Campaign that encourages police departments to partake in mental illness and substance abuse training through Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety. All of the chiefs of police in the state of Massachusetts have committed to training their entire departments through the Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety program (Mental Health First Aid USA 2018), and many police officers nationwide are participating in this training program. 

Conclusion

               Persons with disabilities are at a high risk of experiencing police use of force due to the lack of police training regarding mental illness and disability. Every law enforcement officer should receive training on how to recognize signs of a disability or mental illness, how to interact with that person respectfully and safely while addressing their unique needs, and how best to refer that person to a helpful and qualified resource. This training should last a minimum of forty hours, as is common with many CIT training programs, and draw upon the expertise of professionals in mental and public health fields. Furthermore, this training should be conducted in police academies and as separate sessions for all officers already in the field. However, issues such as the lack of time, resources, and funding needed to provide mental health training in many police departments nationwide has resulted in the ineffective use of the training programs made available by the IACP and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

For all of the above training requirements to be implemented, there should be an organization- such as the IACP- that has the power to create and enforce national standards that include lengthening the duration of police academies, requiring police academies to incorporate mental illness and disability training as part of the curriculum, and mandating recurrent crisis intervention and de-escalation training for all law enforcement officers in the United States over the course of their careers. Through grants and partnerships with both corporations and government agencies, the IACP can help fund CRI-TAC and other training programs for smaller departments that do not have the same resources as larger metropolitan departments. By giving enforcement powers to an overarching police association, particularly one that is not-for-profit like the IACP, policies and distribution of funding can be determined and executed by an organization that speaks for all law enforcement agencies and their specific challenges. Another part of the solution could be to establish an official substitute program through this overarching policing body that would enable officers from better-staffed departments to be temporarily sent to understaffed departments in their region while those departments train their officers and recruits. This could address the issue of short, inadequate training academies due to understaffing, attrition, and low recruiting rates.

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