A police woman wearing a hat a "police" vest stands looking out onto a crowd of people.

New Police Training Aims to Bridge Gap and Build Safety With Disability Community

Washington, DC – In the wake of the police killing of Ryan Gainer, a Black autistic teenager, The Arc of the United States and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) are announcing a landmark program to protect the lives and futures of people with disabilities. Just Policing—made possible by a $750,000 grant from COPS Office—will provide disability awareness training to police officers across the country. The program, designed to bridge the gap between law enforcement and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), aims to address the high rates of victimization and criminalization this community faces often due to a lack of understanding and support.

The new police training program, Just Policing: Disability Inclusion Training, will provide officers with comprehensive knowledge and tools to understand and better serve people with IDD. The training will focus on enhancing bias, effective communication, recognizing IDD, de-escalation techniques, and legal obligations to ensure effective and respectful interactions. By equipping officers with this specialized training, The Arc and COPS Office are committed to improving the safety, inclusion, and overall well-being of the disability community.

Here’s why it matters: People with IDD face overrepresentation and discrimination in all stages of the criminal justice system, from increased policing to harsher sentencing. This can lead to a cycle of victimization and criminalization, perpetuating the barriers faced by people with IDD. Although people with IDD represent up to 3% of the U.S. population, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 20% of prisoners and 30% of jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability. People with IDD are often mistakenly perceived as suspicious due to behaviors related to their disability and may not be able to understand or respond appropriately to an officer’s commands. Not all disabilities are visible, and assumptions from officers can have deadly results. As victims, they are three times more likely than nondisabled people to be victims of violent crime and seven times more likely to experience sexual assault. Yet officers may question if people with IDD are credible witnesses, which leads to low levels of reporting these crimes.

Just Policing, launching in July 2024, will be offered both online and in-person, with the goal of training over 5,000 officers with the support of chapters in Indiana, Oregon, New Mexico, and Virginia. This would reach law enforcement who serve roughly 2 million Americans in their local communities with an additional 10 million with two statewide efforts. The in-person trainings will be led by The Arc’s local chapter staff, law enforcement trainers, and self-advocates—people with IDD who can share their lived experiences and perspectives. By addressing ableism and biases, increasing tolerance among officers, and supporting community policing strategies, the training aims to make the criminal justice system more accessible and trustful to people with IDD. Just Policing is based on a module of The Arc’s National Center for Criminal Justice and Disability’s Pathways to Justice training.

“Far too often, misunderstandings between law enforcement and people with disabilities have tragic consequences,” said Leigh Anne McKingsley, Senior Director of The Arc’s National Center for Criminal Justice and Disability. “People with disabilities should feel safe and protected in our communities. That’s why we’re bringing them together with officers and The Arc’s criminal justice experts to build awareness of the rampant, dangerous, and overlooked issues they face in our criminal justice system. Our aim is to build trust and replace fear with empathy and compassion on both sides,” she continued.

“The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) is the component of the U.S. Department of Justice responsible for advancing the practice of community policing which begins with a commitment to building trust and mutual respect between police and communities,” said LaToshia Austin, PhD, Policy Analyst at the Department of Justice, COPS Office. “We are excited to fund the Just Policing: Disability Inclusion Training project by The Arc which was provided through our FY23 Tolerance, Diversity, and Anti-Bias Training – Community Policing Development Solicitation. Our goal is to increase law enforcement training on tolerance, anti-bias, diversity, and cultural awareness which will help law enforcement agencies improve community engagement, increase trust, and enhance collaborative problem-solving efforts. We envision the project to be a great success and will improve cultural competency and police legitimacy by providing high quality, interactive training for law enforcement on their interactions with persons with disabilities.”

“My justice entanglement affected how social I was because many people were willing to accept the allegations,” said a young adult with autism and traumatic brain injury who was involved with the criminal justice system and participates in The Arc’s police trainings. “It impacted my education and my ability to apply for employment. It took a long time to show that the allegations against me were not true. I am fortunate to have a family who accepted me and fought to find out the truth. Those of us who have IDD need to be involved in the trainings. Officers should begin to identify, investigate, and preserve accommodations for people with IDD just like they do other evidence. When we share our experiences, it has greater impact.”

“I’m privileged to work with both law enforcement and people with IDD to improve communication and outcomes” said Misha Marie, Social Navigator and Just Policing Trainer at The Arc of Benton County. “The best part of the work is seeing both groups relax and begin to be comfortable with each other. This is a giant step in the right direction for all of us to live in safer, healthier communities.”

In addition to training frontline officers, the project will strengthen partnerships between law enforcement agencies and local chapters of The Arc invested in making their communities more inclusive, accessible, and just for all.