Credit: CT-N / CT-N

Sheri Romblad is concerned how her son, who has a hearing disability, would be able to communicate if he was pulled over by police during a traffic stop.

A member of the subcommittee of the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force addressing police interactions with the disability community, Romblad cited a recent incident when an officer shot a man who wasn’t responding to his commands during a traffic stop. “That person was profoundly deaf,” Romblad, who represents the deaf and hard of hearing community, said Tuesday.

“We fear that every day,” Romblad said of her son. “How is he going to respond in that situation? He doesn’t always wear his (hearing) aids while he’s driving so he’s going to have some communication problems.”

The subcommittee unanimously approved sending several recommendations to the full body to improve interactions between officers and the disability community.

But the vote came with some hesitancy on the part of members who contend that some issues haven’t been adequately addressed.

“The majority of this focuses on behavioral health but not all disabilities co-occur with mental health,” said Doris Maldonado, a subcommittee member and teacher with disabilities who is also the mother of children with disabilities.

Chief among the recommendations approved Tuesday:

  • Better training for dispatchers to send calls from people in crisis to 211 rather than 911;
  • Encouraging police to work with social workers who would either respond with officers or follow up after an encounter;
  • Creating an awareness campaign to educate the disability community on where to call for help in a crisis when officers may not be necessary.

Many suggestions focused on how to limit police interaction with people experiencing a mental health crisis. The Center for Treatment Advocacy in Virginia concluded that 30% to 50% of people who die during police incidents had some type of mental illness, said Dr. Meghan Peterson of Central Connecticut State University’s Institute of Municipal and Regional Policy.

Police and firefighters are among those who suffer disproportionately from depression and other mental health issues, making it more important to examine how incidents are handled and what type of training in de-escalation is provided, Peterson said.

“This point speaks to the reality of mental health concerns and other underlying disabilities members of the law enforcement community experience,” the recommendations said. “Improving police interactions with the disability community necessitates a parallel discussion about addressing the needs of police officers with disabilities. Simply put, improving police interactions with the disability community warrants inward and outward inspection.”

Police need more training in how to deal with the disability community, the document advised. 

The recommendations also suggest that the 211 helpline run by the United Way needs to be evaluated to determine if it can handle an increased call volume and greater publicity for the resources that 211 can provide to people in crisis.

In addition to better training for dispatchers, the recommendations advise more education in the disability community so it is understood when a 211 call would meet their needs instead of calling 911.

The subcommittee recommended that towns create a voluntary registry for people with disabilities so that officers would have valuable information when responding to a call.

The recommendations also call for communities to hire full-time social workers and beef up crisis intervention teams. Peterson’s research indicated that smaller police departments thought hiring social workers would not be feasible, but about 50% of police departments in larger towns said they would consider it.

The recommendations have to be approved by the entire task force and then submitted in a report to the legislature due on Dec. 31. Some would need to be implemented through legislation while others would become policy put forth by the Police Officer Training Council which oversees the training and certification of all police officers in the state. Municipalities could implement some of the recommendations on their own. 

Andrew Clark, director of the CCSU IMRP, said the recommendations will likely be the subject of a forum before the full task force to allow the public to weigh in.

As to the subcommittee’s concern that the document did not adequately address the concerns of the full disability community, Clark said members could draft additional items for the full task force to consider.  

“Our work doesn’t end today,” Clark said.