AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Disability rights groups are working with law enforcement officers, legal professionals and victim services providers on how to identify and respond to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

A tip sheet by The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability states people with disabilities make up the single largest minority group in the U.S and officers who have the skill set to work with this population have a significant advantage over officers who do not. It also says that training for law enforcement on intellectual or developmental disabilities is rare, but the need is rising. Intellectual disability and mental illness are also not the same and require different responses.  

“What we know is that people with [an intellectual or developmental disability] represent about two percent of the population, but unfortunately, when it comes to jails and prisons, they’re about 10 percent of the population,” Alex Cogan, a public policy advocate specializing in criminal justice issues with The Arc of Texas, said. “What we’re seeing happen is a lot of individuals entering the system and it’s not until later on in the process that we find out that they have an intellectual disability or developmental disability.”

Friday marked the third year of the nationally-recognized Pathways to Justice training. It was created through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance. Participants at the training included The Arc of the Capital Area, The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability, Austin Police Department, Travis County Sheriff’s Department, Travis County Mental Health Public Defender Office, Integral Care, Texas Council on Developmental Disabilities, SAFE, Travis County District Attorney’s Office, Disability Rights Texas and Texas Advocates. 

John Sabo, a training coordinator with the San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, teaches officers in his department on how to respond to a crisis involving an individual with a mental illness or an individual who has an intellectual or developmental disability. It’s important to note that intellectual disability and mental illness are not the same, though often times there is a co-occurring diagnosis.

“We teach them the fundamentals of distance,” Sabo said. “People in crisis don’t like to be crowded. Getting down on their level, talking them eye to eye instead of standing over them with that authoritarian look. We try to get them away from that standard police everybody thinks, with your hand on your gun and stuff. It’s just that scary response. People in crisis, they don’t want to see that.”

“They want somebody that’s going to come in there and talk to them like they’re your friend,” he added. “That they’re there to help and that’s what we want to impress upon our officers. Let them know you’re there to help them.”

One of the bills that passed this legislative session would allow a peace officer, in lieu of arresting a person with an intellectual disability, to release the person if the officer believes confinement of the person in a correctional facility would be unnecessary to protect the person and the other individuals they live with. This would only apply to a person with an intellectual or developmental disability who lived in a group home or intermediate care facility for this population.

“[It’s] crucial to decreasing mass incarceration and really providing the services and support they need,” Cogan said. “If they do need to be arrested and taken into custody, that they’re still provided that information and the support they need to receive equal access to justice.”

The Arc of Texas is looking to expand these trainings statewide.