A few years ago, Arapahoe County Sheriff Deputy Brian McKnight was called to a local school, where a student with Down syndrome had become violent. “I had no idea what I was dealing with, and I felt very frustrated,” he told 9News Denver. Now as a crime prevention specialist for his department, McKnight has partnered with Mac Macsovits, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Down Syndrome Association, to make sure that law enforcement officers will be better prepared than he was to handle situations with people who have developmental disabilities.
In a recent training seminar at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, Macsovits talked to deputies about how to recognize people with Down syndrome and other disorders, as well as how to communicate efficiently with citizens with developmental disabilities during law enforcement investigations and emergency situations. “People with Down syndrome process information a little bit differently, sometimes a little bit slower,” he said. But the officers aren’t the only ones receiving training. As part of the program, the Sheriff’s Department is launching a voluntary identification program, where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can receive an ID card with information on his or her disability, plus emergency contact information for caregivers and family members. Macsovits will work with his organization to train disabled citizens to hand this card to officers if they are in stressful situations. They’ll also train these citizens on personal safety, situational awareness and communicating with officers in emergency situations. “The ID card program is going to be pivotal to the success of this training,” Macsovits said. “That would help alleviate a lot of these interactions that can escalate unnecessarily.”
Such was the case of Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome who died in January 2013 after a confrontation with police at a Maryland movie theater turned violent. For Macsovits and McKnight, this was a tragedy that could have been avoided, and, through better training, they say it will be. “[This program] gives [officers] more tools to handle the situation and make sure the outcome is what we’re looking for,” McKnight said. “The ability to handle the situation with information and knowledge that I did not have.”