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Look inside the new crisis training for police in Colorado where subjects have disabilities

Police learn about how better to deal with cases where subjects in emergencies have disabilities
Police learn about how better to deal with cases where subjects in emergencies have disabilities 02:37

In a room filled with police officers, Ali Thompson conveyed what she's learned.

"All the officers that I've ever known in my career want to help people. But we haven't given them the tools to understand how to communicate with people who have disabilities."

She knows partly because she's a former law enforcement officer, serving as a sheriff's deputy, field training officer, detective and investigator for the Colorado Attorney General's Office. But also because she's a parent.

Her 15-year-old son is on the autism spectrum and her 13-year-old daughter lives with a brain malformation and is non-verbal, has a seizure disorder and an intellectual disability.

"I have a personal connection through my kids on the disability side, but I also have a personal connection to the cops. Because it breaks my heart that cops are getting indicted and fired and all these things for doing essentially what they've been taught to do because we haven't provided them the tools."

Her company, Pulse Line Collaborative Training has been hired by departments to train officers on dealing with people with disabilities both overt and hidden as well as people with mental health issues and those in crisis.

"The system is so broken, especially when it comes to mental health. We don't have the resources that folks need when they have mental health issues. And we're asking our officers to go out and handle people that they're not professionally trained to handle."

Colorado mandated more of such training when it passed House Bill 1122 in 2021. Among other things, it requires more training at the academy level, then yearly sessions. Wednesday she was training the University of Colorado Boulder Police Department in a session that went beyond the requirements and lasted most of the day.

"We've not only invited the police officers," said deputy chief Tom Matlock, "But our dispatchers and our professional staff here, too. So everybody has an understanding of what these type of issues can come up when we're dealing with just the general public."

Police agencies have been under greater pressure to change tactics after publicized incidents with people with developmental disabilities, mental health issues, dementia or in crisis.

"We have not given them (police) the tools that they need and they're resorting to techniques they learned 20 years ago," said Thompson.

"It was ask, tell, make," said Sgt. Matt Delaria, a 23 year veteran of the CU police force about the training he received earlier in his career. "I would ask someone to do something and I would tell them to do something. And then I would make them do it. That's what we did."

Now policing is changing with the help of training like the session he was in with Thompson.

"But we just didn't have the training at the time. We didn't have the emphasis that we have now."

Thompson tells the officers to slow things down and even ask people what they need. No two people with disabilities have the same issues and so there is no one size fits all approach.

"People with disabilities do not recognize that it isn't OK to fight with cops," she explained. "If we slow it down and work on the communication thing, I think everyone is safer."

That's difficult for police who have been taught differently in the past.

"Why we've gotten some pushback from some of the older, 'old school' officers," she notes.

But there's a reality all law enforcement is dealing with. Safety covers not only the officers and the people they interact with, but the careers of law enforcement as well.

"We have to change the way that we're approaching these calls. Because not only are the public saying that, but the courts are. ... Officer survival is threefold. There's physical, there's emotional and there's legal. And what we're seeing are these officers who are following the old way of doing things and going hands on very quickly, are not surviving legally."

The biggest takeaway from training this day, said Sgt. Delaria, was, "Slow things down. Have some patience and compassion for people."

That kind of change in tactic is learned. Over time he has learned some of it already.

"After 20 plus years on the job I've come to realize that I want to avoid uses of force."

There is always risk, he notes, but the new information will be valuable for him and his officers.

"It's dangerous for us either way. And sometimes what we in police have had a bad habit of doing in the past is ... we've escalated situations that didn't need to be escalated."

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