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As studies find a disproportionate number of people with cognitive disabilities or those experiencing mental health crises have negative interactions with police, some are trying to change that
Kim Randall sits at a desk in the Visions Adult Day Program office in San Pablo, Calif. (Mathew Miranda for Bay News Rising)
Kim Randall was driving on her normal route to work one Wednesday in March 2016 when about a dozen police cars swarmed behind her.
It was clearly no routine traffic stop. And yet, her day so far had been like countless others. She stopped by the office of the Visions Adult Day Program — an organization that works to integrate intellectually disabled individuals into the larger community — to check her schedule before starting her route to transport clients from their homes to the program site in San Pablo, Calif.
She had already picked up two clients, Monica and Cuasie, when police pulled her over.
“I just saw about 10 police officers coming out of nowhere, boom, boom, boom, boom [the sound of car doors slamming],” she said. “And they opened the doors and pulled out their guns, pointing them at me and telling me to raise my window down and to do it slowly. And I’m, like, what is going on?”
Confused by the growing number of police officers who had now formed a circle around her and had their weapons aimed at her, Randall, who grew up in Richmond, said she was frightened but nervously complied with police instructions. Her voice trembled as she recalled what they told her to do:
“Take the key out of the ignition. Take the other hand, drop the keys outside. Take your hand, put it outside the door, open the door, take one foot out. And get out.”
Randall got out of the car and followed their instructions. At the same time, she thought about her passengers and whether they would understand what was happening.
Her passengers are neurodiverse and have special needs, which can create distractions on the best of days. Some clients don’t respond well to instructions, while others might be having a bad day but don’t have the skills to communicate what they feel, so it presents as agitation, she explained. Both Monica and Cuasie are calm people, but Randall wondered how they would react. Cuasie likes to hug people when he meets them, she knew. Would he want to embrace the officers, having been taught to regard the police as friends?
“When I looked around, it was Richmond police and San Pablo police and at least 15 cars,” she said. “And I just start saying, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to shoot me, and I don’t even know why.'”
Monica and Cuasie were startled by the commotion, and Randall became fearful for their safety. Both clients were screaming and asking what was going on. Cuasie said, “They have guns on us, Kim. Are you pulling me out of the car too? What did I do?” Randall didn’t know if they would comply with the officers’ commands.
“I’m just screaming, like, ‘Don’t shoot, you guys, they’re clients, Black lives matter,’” she said. “I’m saying all kinds of things. And then they start telling the clients to get out of the car and put their hands up. I’m, like, oh my God, they’re not going to do it. If they say no or rebel or anything, they may shoot them for no reason.”
The officers put Monica in the car with Randall and Cuasie in another police vehicle; neither was handcuffed.
Just then, another van stopped at the scene. The day before, one of the program’s vans had been reported stolen. Randall’s co-worker had arrived at the scene to inform the officers that they had inadvertently reported an incorrect license plate number to the police.
A quick call by the police to Visions’ Day Program Manager Georgette Fontenaux confirmed Lee’s explanation. They had the wrong van.
However, a female officer at the scene wanted to hold Randall. She said, “Don’t let her go right now. You don’t know what else she might have on her. Put her back in the car.”
Eventually, the officers released Randall, Monica and Cuasie. Once everything settled, an officer came over to apologize. He gave Randall his card and explained that he had an autistic child and understood why she was so concerned for those in her care. Randall said he offered to speak at the center and to assist with fundraising events.
Randall and her clients, though shaken, got through the interaction okay, but the episode prompted her and the organization’s other leaders to consider the challenges and risks to their clients when it comes to dealing with police.
A 2017 American Journal of Public Health study found that people with disabilities had a higher probability of arrest than those without and Black people with disabilities had an even higher cumulative probability of arrest.
Advocates are calling for a variety of solutions, including trying to limit interactions between police and those with cognitive disabilities or mental illnesses, redirecting funds to non-police services and crisis responses, and increasing awareness and training for officers.
Gwen Captain is the founder and executive director of the Visions Adult Day Program. She started the organization so that people with cognitive disabilities would have a place in the San Pablo community to learn new skills and build confidence (Mathew Miranda for Bay News Rising).
Gwen Captain is the founder and executive director of Visions Adult Day Program, and it was her employee, Randall, and her clients, Monica and Cuasie, who were stopped and detained by police back in 2016.
Captain started Visions in 2010 with a mission to serve her community, aided by the first-hand knowledge she acquired as the mother of a son and daughter with cognitive disabilities.
Her son is an amputee and uses a wheelchair. He has been diagnosed with learning disabilities and bipolar disorder. Her daughter has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. These symptoms can occur simultaneously or at different times.
Captain recalls there was a situation in which she had to request a wellness check for her son. She was nervous about calling police, but at that time, she said, there weren’t any other first responders to conduct wellness checks.
“I had to be intentional about telling them all the information about him upfront,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that he’s okay because you don’t know how they’re going to react in that stressful situation.”
Captain constantly worries about clients whose neurodiversities are not always visible. They listen to rap music and take public transportation, but their responses may not match their appearance. They can be slow to respond to police commands, or they might be oppositional, fearful or overly affectionate, she said.
“It’s so unfair because we’ve taught them to trust the police,” she said. “Trust the system, the police are there to help you. And that’s what they do. They are taught this all their lives. If they get in trouble, find somebody with a uniform.”
But they don’t always get the help they need.
In Kaufman County, Texas, a deputy restrained 18-year-old Nekia Trigg in what appeared to be a wrestling hold. A CBS News broadcast that aired on Aug. 3 shows the officer sitting on her chest, his maskless face breathing down on her face, his legs intertwined with hers, as foam dripped from Trigg’s mouth while she struggled to breathe. The officer later handcuffed the barefoot teen. Earlier video taken at the scene showed Trigg walking away from the officer and crying for her mother, saying, “I want to go home.”
Having a mental illness increases the chance for adverse interactions with the police, said Gigi Crowder, the executive director of the Contra Costa County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“You know, it’s almost like we have a bull’s eye on you because more people who live with mental illness are killed than any other group — even more than unarmed African-American men,” Crowder said.
She noted also that there is a vast array of cognitive differences that can affect people’s interactions with police, from neurodiversities like autism to mental health challenges like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder that can result in crisis.
Crowder said it’s typical for a person experiencing a mental health crisis to want to go where he or she feels safe, like Trigg who repeatedly said she wanted to go home.
“A person with a mental illness generally can be a very intelligent person unless they’re in a psychotic state, then shouting commands at the person can create confusion and impaired judgment,” Crowder said.
The American Journal of Public Health study in 2017 looked at people with disabilities and their probability of having negative interactions with the police. The study included people with emotional, physical and cognitive disabilities and found that nearly 44% of research subjects were more likely to be arrested by age 29. Black men in that group had a higher risk of arrest, with 55% arrested by age 28.
The study found also that those with disabilities have an increased chance of multiple contact points with the criminal justice system, including detention, diversion and community supervision.
Additional research presented in the study notes that people in prison are three times more likely than the general population to report having a disability.
Researchers have advocated for disability-related training for employees in the criminal justice system, particularly concerning learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and cognitive disabilities, and the researchers in the American Journal of Public Health study cited studies showing that many police officers lack understanding about disability and how it affects behavior or the ability to comply with their orders.
Captain said her staff trains clients in best practices for interacting with police.
Clients at Visions Adult Day Program are encouraged to wear lanyards with their photos and other relevant information in case they are stopped by the police. (Mathew Miranda for Bay News Rising)
“In thinking about a police interaction, what we’ve talked to them about is not wearing hoodies,” she said. “If they’re out in the community and they’re doing jobs like passing out flyers, they can be identified or seen because they are not wearing a hoodie. And we’ve talked about wearing a lanyard that would have a business card in it. So if something did come up, they could always show the business card. It’s not a fail-safe plan, but it’s something.”
She says listening skills are essential for encounters with police, and she asks her clients to follow directions as much as they can, as Randall did when the police mistakenly pulled her over. Her staff has also worked with clients on communication skills, trying to ingrain in them that they should ask that directions be repeated or be given one at a time.
“We tell them if they’re stopped to try to be as calm as possible and to identify themselves with their first and last name, where they live and to be very cooperative and to look the police officer straight in the eye,” Captain said.
Captain said this still requires that the officer allow for communication and not shout commands in quick succession. She said also that for some clients, maintaining eye contact is extremely difficult.
“We talked about ‘taking the one down,'” she said. “When I say take the one down, that means to apologize. OK, officer, I’m sorry. You know, apologetic. They might feel like there’s no reason for the police to stop them, but they could be mistakenly identified. So we’ve taken that approach because, typically, we won’t be there with them. They’re in the community by themselves. So we want to see them get home safe.”
San Leandro resident Deandre Steiner, 28, has attended the Vision Adult Day Program for over three years. Steiner is mild-mannered and soft-spoken. He prides himself on his appearance, dressing neatly and sporting the latest haircut.
He watched a lot of TV in 2020 while stay-at-home orders were in place, and he became increasingly anxious about being stopped by police after seeing news reports of people killed by officers. Steiner, who is Black, said if he was stopped by the police, he would feel nervous and scared.
“You just follow what they say for you to do,” he said, noting that is what he has been instructed to do to keep safe. He recounted what he saw happen in the George Floyd video,
“Some [police] seem to be rude and rough,” he said. “You don’t need to be treated like that. All of us need to be treated equal — not treated wrong.”
Lt. Matt Stonebraker, a public information officer in the Richmond Police Department, said calls that involve people with a cognitive disability or who might be suffering a mental breakdown are challenging for officers.
“Those are tough calls to go to sometimes, but it’s almost like a mail carrier. When you’re carrying a fragile package, you want to handle it with care,” Stonebraker said.
In Richmond, officers receive mental crisis intervention training. They learn how to assess and evaluate situations and have a system to follow up with people after an initial call. They have a team of clinicians who are paired with officers.
“They go out daily to follow up on all of the mental health calls to make sure that they’re okay, taking their medication — making sure that they are following what they’re supposed to be doing.”
These tactics are what the American Journal of Public Health study referred to as the many points of contact people with disabilities have with law enforcement. If that relationship is good, this is a potential solution, but these layered interactions may not be beneficial if relationships are fraught between community members and the police.
Just north of Richmond, the city of San Pablo also has cultivated an approach to handling calls that involve people with cognitive disabilities and who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
Capt. Brian Bubar has worked in the San Pablo Police Department since 2002. He said the department prioritized de-escalation tactics training over the last five years that they have incorporated into their training curriculum. They have also prioritized progressive training in the form of principle policing, racial profiling, implicit bias and procedural justice. Bubar said the training is happening alongside a national conversation around the role of law enforcement.
We’ve been adapting accordingly,” he said. “We made crisis intervention training a mandatory course for all of our sworn officers. We applied for grants, which we received from the Department of Justice to deliver that training to 100% of our officers, and we’re still going through that training now. A lot of it is changing the culture of how we respond as law enforcement in San Pablo.”
Bubar said police have seen people with mental health issues and cognitive disabilities struggling with homelessness, so they assigned someone to sit on a county committee to address homelessness.
“What we understood fairly early on is that enforcement is not a viable solution in that you can’t arrest individuals out of homelessness,” he explained. “It doesn’t address the issue. We’re coming across a lot of issues of individuals suffering from mental health, as well as substance abuse, alcohol addiction – a litany of issues that we were trying to address and figure out.”
One key component of the San Pablo police training is to simply slow down.
“So a lot of confrontations that we see are due to limited information,” he said. “Tactical decisions are being rushed, so we try to slow everything down through our responses.”
The San Pablo Police Department is participating in a regional pilot program exploring these critical incident responses. The department has assigned a lieutenant to be a full-time partner with the county resource providers, including a mobile crisis response team of counselors who are better trained and who have the education and experience to interpret and assist the force in dealing with mental health crisis situations.
“The most I can hope for with my officers is putting them in a position to have this dialogue,” Bubar said. “So it’s not just, hey, we’re the police, and this is what we do, and this is why we do it. It’s not about justifying the actions, but it’s also about how our police service is being interpreted, how it makes our community feel and through that dialog, through these conversations, it helps form policy, it helps form training, it helps us adapt to what’s working, what isn’t working.”
Community solutions and calls to ‘defund police’
Many activists outraged by law enforcement killings of Black people — highlighted by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Floyd — laid down the gauntlet with a singular demand: Defund the police.
While there is much debate around this petition, it has inspired civic leaders and community activists to look at alternatives to policing, particularly regarding people in communities continually mishandled by the police, including the unhoused, people with disabilities and people with mental health issues.
Oakland is embracing a model in practice in Eugene, Ore., for 30 years, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Street (CAHOOTS), whose staff of unarmed outreach workers and medics is trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation.
The Oakland incarnation of this program, Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO), also incorporates a trauma-informed, client-centered response. The city aims to launch a pilot of the program this year.
“Although supporters are not yet sure what its size and duration will be, they’re hopeful it’ll make a big difference to Oakland’s overpoliced community of people without homes,” said Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability. “They were among those who first called for a non-policing approach.”
MACRO will likely send a mental health counselor and an emergency medical technician, instead of police, to respond to some emergency calls and, as in Eugene, the program will be wired into the 911 system.
There are similar efforts afoot. MH First, in Oakland and Sacramento, consists of volunteers who maintain a hotline and mobile response unit to handle crises including, but not limited to, psychiatric emergencies, substance abuse support, and domestic violence situations that require victim extraction. It is independent of law enforcement.
“I think that’s the difference between when police respond. The culture of ‘We have the ultimate authority, we know best, there’s no negating our authority,’ is in opposition to the crux of MH First training,” said Asantewaa Boykin, a registered nurse at the University of California at Davis and the program director for MH First. Instead, MH First training “is about listening and about checking our own traumas, being aware of our triggers, so that we’re able to be fully present for the person that we’re responding to.”
Boykin, also a cofounder of the activist group Anti-Police Terror Project, understands that community leaders must be in a constant dialog with the people they serve.
“I think, initially, we hyper-focused on folks that were in mental health crisis,” she said. “We neglected to specifically address people with disabilities in our training. So we got some information and training to prepare folks to deal with different neural divergences and added disability justice language into our training.”
Advocates hope efforts like that will help raise awareness enough to avoid dangerous interactions with police. Because for many, it’s too late.
When Shannon Davis a client in the Visions Adult Day program, heard about Elijah McClain on the news, she felt an immediate connection.
McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, died in 2019 from a now-banned police chokehold.
According to the New York Times, McClain was walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, when someone called 911, saying he “looked sketchy” and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. Later, his family said he wore the ski mask because he was often cold.
The police arrived and struggled with McClain, using restrictive holds that twice caused him to lose consciousness. Paramedics arrived and injected him with the drug ketamine. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to a hospital and died a few days later. In September, a grand jury indicted the three officers and two medics involved in McClain’s death.
While McClain’s family did not publicly confirm whether he was neurodivergent and told ABC News that Elijah had not been diagnosed with autism, many people with autism or cognitive disorders have reported identifying with what he told police during the interaction: that he was an “introvert” and was uncomfortable with their touch.
“I’m just different,” McClain reportedly told police then.
Davis has a mild cognitive disability and said she related to McClain, who was described as sensitive and gentle.
“Well, I felt related to him because he was my skin color,” Davis said.
Davis read many articles about McClain and learned that he liked to play the violin and loved cats, so she created a collage in his honor. Davis lives with her parents and five cats, and takes care of several neighborhood strays.
She cut out cat photos, string, and drew pictures of balloons, hearts and a violin on the poster. Describing her collage tribute, Davis lamented that Elijah was an innocent man and didn’t deserve to die.
“I felt like he didn’t have to have his life cut short like that,” she said. “And I felt like that was very wrong because the officers didn’t have to take them down like that. That was just very wrong. And he could have lived life to the fullest. He could have pursued his dreams to go out and play music with his violin for the cats. That’s what he wanted to do. He just wanted to show his love to the cats.”
by Ande Richards