Challenges Faced by the Police When Dealing With Individuals With Developmental Disabilities

Challenges Faced by the Police When Dealing With Individuals With Developmental Disabilities

Author: Aonist Coles


On the 25th of May 2020, George Floyd was brutally killed by four police officers, and many seem to believe that the incident that led to his death was racially motivated being that George Floyd was an African- American male. Floyds death has led to a series of protests and riots against police brutality towards black people. However, a group of people who seem to be overlooked in this fight against police brutality and profiling are those with developmental disabilities. To echo the aforementioned sentiment, just a few days after the death of Floyd, 32 year old autistic Eyad Hallaq was gunned down by police officers.

Eyad was on his way to his day center and was cornered by police officers who were told to be on the lookout for a terrorist running towards them. Being a terrified austic man, Eyad was in a state of panic and unable to articulate his innocence to the police officer properly. Eyad’s teacher tried to explain the situation to the police officers, but at the sight of movement from Eyad, the police officers fired seven shots which killed him. Eyad’s death is part of a larger issue which plagues the developmentally disabled community, where police officers might misinterpret behavioral symptoms associated with developmental disorders as non- compliant or aggressive.

Eyad Hallaq

Seeing as Black Lives Matter has called for an end to racial injustice in law enforcement, public health , and education, Doucette (A disabled African-American worker from the city of Rochester) believes that justice for people with developmental disabilities is part of the equation too. Additionally, Individuals with developmental disabilities are less likely than members of the general population to contact law enforcement personnel. The reasons are complicated, but the difficulty in communication is a major cause (Viljoen et al. 2016). Sometimes, these individuals with developmental disabilities are unable to articulate a situation or explain an issue properly, hence they refrain from police interactions. This has raised concerns over the interactions between persons with developmental disabilities and the police authorities.


There are major challenges police officers face when communicating with developmentally challenged individuals. These problems hinder the gathering of information from disabled victims, which compromises the apprehension and prosecution of criminals (Viljoen et al. 2016). These difficulties are not always adequately addressed. Further, in the context of law enforcement, developmental disabilities can pose a particular challenge where misunderstood socially atypical behavior can lead to both an officer and the individual with a disability in a dangerous situation(Denise, 2007). I always cringe anytime any of our clients are in a behavior, and the police have to get involved. In the case of Eyad Hallaq, this led to death. Nonetheless, this can be avoided if law enforcement officers have been trained to identify individuals with developmental disabilities and respond appropriately (Osborn, 2008). Whether developmentally disabled persons are victims, witnesses or perpetrators, police officers must be qualified and be trained to understand and recognize the characteristics of mentally disabled persons and be equipped with communication capabilities.

Self-confrontation is one of the challenges faced when interviewing people with developmental disabilities . An individual who lacks proper training or education might find it very uncomfortable or intimidating to interact with a person with mental disabilities. These individuals do not know how to approach them, what questions to ask, or how to start. The lack of experience with people with a developmental disability will make one feel insecure and unsure about how to proceed (Denise, 2007). It is said that the pessimistic mindset is the biggest obstacle to compelling interrogation with the developmental disability population. The best way to learn and be aware of this population is for interviewers to overcome the tendency to treat people with severe developmental disabilities as stupid or unworthy of police care or security (Denise, 2007). Another challenge is to take the time to learn how to handle people with developmental disabilities rather than mark them because of their disability. I can tell you first hand it takes a certain level of patience and understanding, and the best trained people to do that or provide this level of understanding is a Elite Direct Support Staff (EDS). EDS’s are state certified Direct Support Professionals (DSP’s) who has received advanced training, education, and has worked hundreds field of hours with clients who are at high risk for escalated behaviors.


A police officer’s job is already a difficult and tasking one, nonetheless, the police must become aware and be trained on issues that might arise when dealing with the developmentally disabled population, and how to address them. Interviewing people with developmental disabilities may pose many challenges, depending on the extent of disability. Officers need to understand their behavioral evolution for a number of reasons through subjective experiences (Denise, 2007).


Officials responsible for police enforcement respond to and bear witness to abuse committed by people with developmental disabilities. As the authority, they need to be conscious of what the person just experienced and not make the situation harder than it is. Since the investigating officers have an obligation to serve a person with developmental disability, it is also of great importance to be patient and gentle. Sadly, it is not possible to avoid any negative contact. Sometimes things go wrong, and we need to know how to get up and move on.

In recent years, there has been a steady increase in investigations concerning people with developing disabilities who are mostly attracted by their disability in the criminal justice system. There is a high number of people with developmental impairments in prison. Persons with developmental disabilities represent two to three percent of the total US population but four to ten percent in prisons with the highest concentrations in younger facilities (Denise, 2007). Doucette further states “We can’t really talk about getting people out of prisons without talking about getting people out of institutions.”


There has been a particular increase in the autism spectrum in criminal justice issues anecdotally. This appears to come almost always from the handicap. For instance, a person exhibits certain unusual behaviors for a passerby, so they call the police. The police observe actions and question the person in what they do. A person with a disability in development often fails to explain what they do and why the police are afraid. Confusion, arguments, and physical fighting may arise, and we can find someone completely innocent in his behavior to be accused, arrested, and brought before the courts (Denise, 2007). It is important to note that in our legal systems, given the vast number of people with intellectual disabilities, individuals with developing disabilities are far more likely than the general population to become victims of crimes. People with developmental disabilities are 4-10 times more likely than people without developing disabilities to be victimized.





Alexiou, G. (2020, June 14). No Justice No Speech: Autism A Deadly Hazard When Dealing With Police. Retrieved here.

Denise D. K. (2007). Smart talk: Contemporary interviewing and interrogation. Pearson Education.

Evans, N. E. C. (n.d.). Disability justice is part of the fight for racial equity, says advocate. Retrieved here.

Viljoen, E., Bornman, J., Wiles, L., & Tönsing, K. M. (2017). Police officer disability sensitivity training: A systematic review. The Police Journal, 90(2), 143-159.

Osborn, E. H. (2008). What Happened to Paul’s Law: Insights on Advocating for Better Training and Better Outcomes in Encounters between Law Enforcement and Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders. U. Colo. L. Rev., 79, 333.