OPINION: A Potential Answer for Police/Fire Who Deal With Mentally Disabled Suspects
In mid-August 2013, William Boo “Boogie” Lawson, 49, of Edgewater, was tasered by Anne Arundel County Police inside of his home. Lawson, known to many as the “mayor of Edgewater,” is mentally disabled. The incident caused police, neighbors and those in the disability community to look for ways to help citizens and police communicate in emergency situations.
Earlier this year a man with Downs Syndrome, Ethan Saylor, 26, was killed by Frederick County police when he wouldn’t comply with a police order to leave a movie theater. The victim’s sister, Emma Saylor of Mount Airy, launched a Change.org petition to get Gov. Martin O’Malley to not only review the case but also to implement police training in dealing with mentally disabled suspects.
In September, O’Malley signed an Executive Order creating a commission to investigate “Effective Community Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.” The order is also known as the “Saylor Executive Order.” The task force is headed up by Dr. Timothy Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics.
Out of these troubling and tragic situations, we may begin to see progress for law enforcement and better communication with the those who advocate for mentally disabled citizens.
One solution might be emergency ID cards or placards on homes and automobiles.
Emergency Identification Cards
In Calgary, (Alberta, Canada), police there began piloting an Emergency Alert Identification cards program for both the disabled person and their caregiver. These cards can not only provide critical information like address and special medical or urgent care needs, but also be beneficial to law enforcement and emergency personnel as to who to deal with in a critical or emergency situation. If a caregiver has an opportunity to present the card on behalf of the person in their care, public safety officials can immediately know that there is a person with autism or an intellectual disability in need of specialized support.
In Calgary, the cards can be customized to individual and family circumstances:
“For example some higher functioning adults found the cards helpful in guiding urgent centre [sic] care staff who previously doubted the diagnosis or misunderstood visible symptoms or stigmas,” according to Autism Calgary, a disability advocay group. “Another example, the family of a non-verbal individual with Autism obtained two cards, one for the individual with Autism, another for the caregiver. In the event of an emergency, the caregiver card can alert first responders.”
In Calgary, there is an associated cost with getting these cards to people in the community — $2 to $5 for each card as a donation.
In the c
ommonwealth of Pennsylvania, legislators and public safety advocates are working on multiple tracks. First, to implement a similar ID card system, but also to allow residents to register their home address with 911 — so that if an emergency situation occurs, first responders will immediately recognize the address.
In addition, they are looking to police and fire department issued placards that could be placed in a prominent location at the entrance to a home to alert emergency personnel to the presence of a person with an intellectual or other disability. Finally, Pennsylvania public safety officials have also implemented specialized training at state and county training academies, including law enforcement, fire, corrections, legal and court or government staff, dispatchers.
An Answer Close-By?
Maryland doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to arrive at a solution. We can look to how other states and localities are dealing with these issues. The administration and the task force should work quickly to develop and implement policies and procedures that police departments, fire departments and other government agencies can implement in order to avoid the kinds of unfortunate and tragic incidents like the Lawson and Saylor have gone through.