LITTLETON, Colo. — The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office became the first in the state this week to undergo a new type of training for how to interact with people who have disabilities.
For the past year, Thompson has teamed up with the Autism Society of Colorado to talk to people with disabilities about their encounters with police officers, both good and bad, and come up with a curriculum to train officers on these interactions.
“I watch these videos that come out on TV and newscasts and these calls that go horribly bad, and while they don’t represent the majority of the calls, they’re changing lives of officers and people with disabilities,” Thompson said
Thompson’s 14-year-old son has autism and she says watching some of these encounters can be terrifying as a parent.
The new curriculum is not only aimed at helping patrol officers understand how to identify and approach people with disabilities, but also helping dispatchers make sure they ask the right questions to help officers understand the situation they’re about to encounter.
“If there’s not an imminent threat, we need to teach our officer to pause and think: Are they deaf, are they autistic, why are they not following my verbal commands?” Thompson said.
Part of the training includes reviewing body camera videos of interactions where things went right and situations that could have been handled differently.
For the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, this is all part of ongoing training efforts as part of their Crisis Intervention Teams training.
Sheriff Tony Spurlock says officers often have to make split-second decisions, and this is just another tool to help in that decision-making process.
“What we want to do is we want to make sure the call goes safely, the officer is safe, the citizen is safe, and often we get just a few seconds to determine that and sometimes these individuals are in crisis,” Spurlock said.
Spurlock is a big proponent of ongoing education for officers, particularly as the understanding of disabilities and mental health evolves.
However, Douglas County is lucky. Many other smaller or more rural police departments don’t have the money or resources to be able to undergo this type of specialized training.
“One of the things is a challenge for law-enforcement around the state of Colorado is the expense and time. If you’re going to be at a three-day, 24-hour training, you have to take that officer off the street,” Spurlock said. “It does become a burden for some jurisdictions.”
Resources notwithstanding, these types of calls come in to big and small police departments, and Thompson is trying to find a way to make the training available to everyone. She’s in the process of looking for an angel investor or corporate sponsor to help funding the training for police departments across Colorado.
She’s also hoping to give it to a newly formed commission tasked with finding ways to improve first responder interactions with people who have disabilities.
HB21-1122 was passed with bipartisan support and forms a 12-person commission through the Attorney General’s Office to review the existing training curricula and come up with a statewide standard.
The state is currently in the process of picking commission members.
For Thompson, the training with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is the first and she hopes it certainly won’t be the last.
“My ultimate goal is to reduce and, frankly, abolish unwarranted use of force against people with disabilities in mental health issues,” Thompson said.