Thursday, August 14, 2014

People with Developmental Diabilities and the Police - A Safety Issue

One year ago on Long Island, a 29-year old resident of a group home for people with developmental disabilities died after police used stun guns and pepper spray during a 10-minute struggle in the home where he lived.

Dainell Simmons had lived in the group home in Suffolk County on Long Island since it opened six years earlier. Police reported that staff at the facility called 911 to request assistance transporting him to a psychiatric emergency room after he "created a disturbance" in the facility, running around and banging into the walls for about half an hour.

By the time police arrived, Dainell had calmed down and was sitting on a couch talking to staff. Police claim he assaulted them when they attempted to handcuff him for transport to the emergency room. A struggle ensued, and police used stun guns at least twice, as well as pepper spray. After being handcuffed, Simmons lost consciousness and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Police characterized him as "emotionally disturbed," a term that appeared in many of the news stories. Comments following one of the stories on the web included two former staffers who said they knew Simmons, and that he was diagnosed with autism. Both said that, handled competently by properly trained professionals, the situation could have been resolved without the use of weapons.

In response to Simmons' death, one parent of an adult group home resident began a petition to mandate training for first responders on interacting with people with disabilities.

In February, 2013, a 26-year old man with Down Syndrome died of asphyxiation after police restrained him face-down on the ground when he failed to leave a theater at the end of a movie. The death was ruled a homicide, but a grand jury failed to indict any of the officers who responded.
In Toronto in 2011, a 45-year old man who was unable to speak as a result of traumatic brain injury he sustained as a child was beaten with batons when he failed to respond to police questions. He collapsed and died later, possibly of a brain hemorrhage.

The civil rights movement for people with disabilities resulted in massive "deinstitutionalization"--the closure of long-term facilities where people with disabilities were locked up and forgotten--and the right for people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities to live in the community. What was supposed to follow--support and services in the community to ensure the opportunity for full and equal engagement in society--has never fully materialized.

While the demand for more training for police as a short-term response may prevent some tragedies such as the killing of Dainell Simmons, longer-term solutions involve more and better housing with clinical support available at home, and more and better care in the community. This would minimize the need for trips to the psychiatric emergency room and short-term hospitalizations, which are traumatic and disruptive of people's lives.

Crisis response, when still needed, should be performed and supervised by trained, knowledgeable people, rather than police officers primarily trained to take lawbreakers into custody.

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