As the number of people with developmental disabilities and mental illness interacting with police in the United States grows, law enforcement agencies need to be better trained, a panel told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the hearing was held in honor of the late Ethan Saylor, a New Market man who had Down syndrome and died in the custody of three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies in January 2013. He called the meeting “Ethan’s Hearing.”
Durbin said the federal government needs to do more to improve nationwide training efforts.
“In recent years, law enforcement have been forced to shoulder a new challenge due to inadequate mental health and social services. Police officers, many times, have become the first responders for disabled individuals in crisis,” Durbin said at the outset of the hearing. “It’s incumbent on Congress and the executive branch to help local and state law enforcement shoulder this expanded role and develop practices that protect officers, disabled individuals and the public.”
Durbin and other members of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights said they hoped the stories of Saylor and another father whose son has mental illness would help lead to increased funding for crisis intervention training or “CIT” programs across the country.
About 2,800 police agencies have comprehensive crisis intervention training programs in place, including Montgomery County.
The program includes a 40-hour training and focuses on de-escalating tense situations.
Sgt. A.D. Paul of the Plano (Texas) Police Department, who has worked with Patti Saylor on training efforts, testified that his agency has experienced a 24 percent reduction in “use of force” reports since the program was started in 2008.
Paul is the CIT coordinator for his department and travels the country to teach the lessons learned from a 1995 officer-involved shooting of a 15-year-old boy who had autism in Plano. Paul, a young patrol sergeant at the time, responded and tried to perform CPR before the boy died.
Now, as the father of a son who has autism, Paul continues to advocate the CIT program. “I have personally seen life as a police officer in Plano before CIT and after,” Paul said. “Life in the community is better with CIT in it.”
Denise E. O’Donnell, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Justice Department, called CIT programs the “linchpin” of effective efforts to help improve responses nationwide to mentally ill individuals. The same approach can be applied to efforts at improving responses for people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, O’Donnell said.
The Justice Department is working to fund additional CIT training and has recently helped establish a National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.
For Patti Saylor, Tuesday’s hearing was an opportunity to expand her advocacy efforts to the federal level.
Locally, her family plans on continuing advocacy during the election season, and their statewide advocacy efforts led to a state commission tasked with improving training for first responders in situations involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Saylor’s death also prompted a review by the Justice Department. In written testimony, the National Down Syndrome Society wrote that they anticipated a report from the Justice Department “in the immediate future.”
Saylor said she hoped her testimony Tuesday would lead to increased funding for CIT training and other programs throughout the country. She was recently invited to speak at upcoming event through the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Saylor said.
“I want police, correctional officers, the full gamut of law enforcement to understand that people with intellectual or developmental disabilities may need additional assistance in problem solving,” Saylor said after the hearing.
She believes that if Ethan Saylor had been “helped instead of commanded,” he might still be alive.
“While anyone, disability or not, could have been injured or killed in Ethan’s situation that evening, our family also remains deeply concerned that Ethan’s rights, as an individual with a disability, were violated,” Saylor wrote in testimony to the committee.
In October, Saylor’s family filed a lawsuit against the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and the owners of the movie theater. The case remains open in federal court.
Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said he did not watch Tuesday’s hearing and couldn’t comment about the particular issues discussed. He said the department implemented a four-hour training intended to improve communications with people who have intellectual disabilities after Ethan Saylor’s death. In the past, some crisis intervention techniques have been incorporated into other trainings about mental illness and autism, he said. The department will consider additional crisis intervention training if it is mandated by the state and federal government, Jenkins said.
“Anything that comes down in the future, we are going to get out in front of it,” he said.