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Report pushes police to improve training, communication with disabled Austinites

Tuesday, September 28, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

A new report based on feedback from residents with disabilities calls on the Austin Police Department to make improvements to its training and practices concerning interactions with residents experiencing mental health issues, hearing loss or other disabilities.

The report comes from the Office of Police Oversight, which scrutinizes police activities and acts as an advocate for residents to make complaints involving the department. In six findings and other follow-up recommendations, the report highlights problems experienced by disabled residents in recent years and pushes for the department to improve engagement with those communities, including disabled students of color who are found to have disproportionately poor experiences with police.

The report’s findings come from a May community forum that included 42 community members working with city staff and officials. Forum participants examined why interactions with police officers tend to make disabled residents feel unsafe and explored ways APD can change its practices to improve those interactions.

Among the findings was the view that current police practices are not friendly to those with disabilities, and that those with physical or psychological disabilities are seen as dangerous, which can increase the chances of hostility from police.

The report said the department needs to dedicate more training resources to improving communication and community engagement with disabled residents, in order to increase officers’ understanding of the lived experiences of people with physical and mental health issues.

That awareness was also seen as having a large impact on the outcome of an officer’s interaction with a disabled person, with those showing empathy and understanding having better outcomes than those who were disrespectful and unwilling to accommodate a disability.

Feedback from the session, which is intended to be held regularly going forward, also showed consideration needs to be given to how a person’s disability, race and socioeconomic situation impacts their quality of life and impression of the police. This was especially true for students of color with a disability, who can experience increased racism and other traumas at higher rates than able-bodied white students.

The report’s final finding was that training around mental health issues is an area of special need for the department, with a high level of negative impacts for residents resulting from a lack of understanding and assistance resources for those experiencing poor mental health.

The report will be presented to City Council soon, and will serve as the basis of another town hall slated to be held next year.

The Office of Police Oversight opted to schedule the town hall after giving a presentation last summer to the Mayor’s Committee for People With Disabilities. That presentation focused largely on the findings of data around officer-involved shootings in recent years, with some attention paid to the role of mental health issues in those incidents.

Committee members responded by criticizing office staff for not having detailed data about police interactions with residents with disabilities, and pushed for staff to make a deeper commitment to advocate for the disabled.

“You are one of many city departments who has come to the committee for people with disabilities without really bringing up or highlighting issues related to people with disabilities. Without pulling out that issue and discussing it when that is the purpose of this committee, again it seems that equity doesn’t include people with disabilities,” committee member Deborah Trejo said at the meeting last July. “You’ve exclusively talked from what I’ve heard about mental health as an area you’re concerned about, but I have not heard you express any concern about people with disabilities.”

The report for the local disabled community is the latest release from the Office of Police Oversight seeking improvement from APD, following last week’s news that it has asked the department to review more than 200 complaints related to the widespread protests against police violence in Austin last summer.

Photo by Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, MD, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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