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Congress Examines Police Response To People With Disabilities

WASHINGTON, DC (April 29, 2014) -- A Senate Judiciary Committee panel took testimony today from experts in law enforcement and the disabilities community, including Autism Speaks, on the police response to emergencies involving people with disabilities.

The hearing was prompted in part by high-profile police incidents, including the death of Robert Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome who was asphyxiated after being handcuffed by sheriff's deputies in a Maryland movie theater. Saylor's mother, Patti, [left, with her son] was an invited witness before the Senate panel.

"Police are trained to respond with a certain protocol, but this protocol may not always be the best way to interact with individuals with autism," said Stuart Spielman, Autism Speaks senior policy advisor and counselor

"Challenging law enforcement officers, not responding to their orders, or running away may not be acts of defiance by an individual with autism," he said. "Because police are usually the first to respond to an emergency, it is critical that officers have a working knowledge of autism, and the wide variety of behaviors individuals on the autism spectrum can exhibit in emergency situations."

Many interactions between police and people with autism involve episodes of wandering by children and adults. Nearly half of children with autism attempt to wander, Spielman said, and more than half of those go missing, often into dangerous situations.

Spielman highlighted Autism Speaks' partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a dedicated safety web portal and Autism Response Teams to help respond to emergencies.

"But we need help from Congress and the Executive Branch," he told the Senate panel. "We look to the federal government to work closely with first responders and local law enforcement on training to increase awareness of the special safety needs of people on the spectrum and to provide tools that will reduce the risk of harm to vulnerable individuals."

Chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights called the hearing to explore how Congress and federal agencies can support and strengthen efforts at the local level to improve interactions between law enforcement and the disabilities community.

"Because of inadequate social and mental health services, law enforcement officers have increasingly become the first responders for individuals with mental illness or developmental disabilities who are in crisis," according to the committee's announcement of the hearing. "Recent high-profile tragedies have demonstrated the need for law enforcement officers to receive additional training to safely address these situations. State and local law enforcement agencies have taken the lead in developing innovative solutions, such as Crisis Intervention Teams.

"Localities that use these approaches have seen fewer injuries and deaths among officers and people with mental illness or developmental disabilities, increased jail diversion rates, fewer lawsuits following crisis incidents, and stronger ties with the mental health and disability communities," according to the committee.