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Police and legal pros get training on how to handle situations involving people with disabilities

Posted at 5:03 PM, Dec 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-12 21:04:28-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A non-profit organization held a first-of-its-kind seminar to teach law enforcement officers, first responders, and legal professionals how to understand and handle incidents involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

More than 100 individuals representing a variety of agencies, including the San Diego Police Department, Chula Vista Police Department, and the public defender's office attended the Arc of San Diego's "Pathways to Justice" training at the Handlery Hotel in Mission Valley.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies from across the country have been under attack about their handling of cases involving witnesses, victims, and suspects with disabilities. Arc of San Diego hopes to bridge the understanding gap.

On April 30, 2015, San Diego Police officer Neal Browder responded to a call about a man reportedly wielding a knife. He rolled into the alley with no lights, sirens, nor was he wearing a body camera.

But a nearby surveillance camera caught the entire encounter. Within three seconds of opening his door, Browder fatally shot the man, Fridoon Nehad. It turned out, Nehad was an unarmed, mentally disabled man.

Since this incident, the American Civil Liberties Union has questioned the officer's use of lethal force. Would this have happened if San Diego Police officers had the proper training?

The Arc of San Diego hopes this never happens again, which is why they invited agencies to join their training seminar.

"We want to help first responders have a better understanding of what it is to interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," Arc of San Diego CEO and President Anthony Desalis said.

San Diego was chosen as one of four cities nationwide to run this three-pilot program. The others are Monmouth County, New Jersey, Loudoun County, Virginia, and Columbia, South Carolina. The program includes this one-day seminar where each department will create its own Disability Response Team. Finally, the departments will hire disabled individuals as intern cadets through the "Growth Through Opportunity" program.

"That gives the officers at those stations a chance to interact with someone who has a disability," SDPD Sgt. Jonathan Lowe said. While his primary assignment is recruiting, he is also the Chief's Liaison for the Disabled Community.

So how do you deal with a situation like Nehad's? Experts say step one is to be patient.

"Don't automatically assume they are somebody who is drunk or somebody who is on drugs," Desalis said. "It may just be that it takes a moment to process what you're saying to them."

Giving that person that extra moment could be the difference between life and death.

"No situation is ever going to be perfect in the field," Sgt. Lowe said. "But at least we can do our best to be proactive about training our officers the right way."