Supporting People with Disabilities from a First Responder and Law Enforcement Perspective
RMHS Partnered with Local Law Enforcement to Offer Free One-Day Course
Melissa Emery (third from right), RMHS service coordination program manager, and Georgia Jolomi (second from left), RMHS trainer, shared their expertise in working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities alongside Denver law enforcement.
Whitney Cobb’s 25-year-old son, Julian, is an installation artist who creates his work using small interesting things he finds. Sometimes, Julian sees something he likes, and he takes it without realizing he shouldn’t. Julian has obsessive tendencies secondary to autism and can have trouble controlling his impulses.
One day, Julian ran out of a store clutching a product he really liked. He didn’t want to wait in line to pay for it. Staff members who help support Julian’s daily living through therapy and care quickly apologized and chased after him, coaxing him back to the store. It was a teachable moment, and he returned to pay for the item with the help and expertise of his caregivers.
Julian works on his boundaries with a behavioral therapist and receives supports as a Rocky Mountain Human Services (RMHS) client. In situations like these, little things can quickly escalate Julian’s behavior, such as a well-intentioned law enforcement officer misinterpreting what’s happening.
“If you observed a moment of that, you wouldn’t see all of the pieces we are trying to put in place,” Whitney said, speaking to a room full of paramedics, firefighters, law enforcement, prosecutors and victim advocates. Addressing the person with I/DD first is critical and including caregivers can also be key. “Sometimes we can translate what’s happening and why it’s going on.” Julian is non-verbal and uses a communication device.
Whitney was part of a panel of speakers who have experience with I/DD in their lives at an event held by RMHS, the Denver Police Department, City Attorney and District Attorney’s office on May 10 at the Denver Health Rita Bass Trauma and EMS Education Institute. The purpose was to teach best practices when working with individuals who have I/DD.
RMHS trainers Melissa Emery and Georgia Jolomi presented an overview of I/DD, including information about the team of people often involved in the lives of people with I/DD and the support systems in place through Medicaid and Social Security. Melissa also paired up with Denver Police Department Special Victims Unit Sgt. T.J. Blair to teach best practices for how first responders should handle situations involving people with I/DD.
“When I was putting my part of the training together, I was worried I was telling people things they already know – communicating with people with I/DD seems innate to me, so giving people tips and tricks about how to talk to people with I/DD felt unnecessary,” Melissa said. “But my fellow presenter, Sgt. Blair with the Denver Police Department, told me he uses my tips and tricks all the time and other people will, too. It turns out he was right. We got a lot of positive feedback about our presentation and have even been solicited to present at a conference later this year.”
Michael Jaramillo, a security officer for the Regional Transportation District, said he was thankful for the information. Security guards don’t receive training like police officers, who learn how to respond to situations involving someone with I/DD.
“I’m learning quite a bit of stuff,” he said. “A different way to approach situations.”
Police officers with extensive training walked away learning something new, too. Mike Gillit, with the Denver Police Department Special Victims Unit, said he didn’t realize how many people are involved in the life of someone with I/DD. Case managers, therapists, caregivers and advocates can all be a valuable resource.
“The biggest take away for me is perspective,” Mike said. “The amount of people involved in a case … it’s good to see and apply to my own investigations.”
Richard Saiz, whose son has I/DD, learned more about resources that can help first responders and the I/DD community work together effectively. The City of Denver has an optional database where individuals can share their health information, so officers can access it in an emergency. For example, they can share their medications and provider’s contact information. “For my son, I think that would be a good thing,” Richard said.
Sgt. T.J. Blair explained that those with I/DD are twice as likely to be victimized in a crime, and they are also disproportionately incarcerated, which means they come in contact law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics more often. T.J. works closely with RMHS on cases to make sure clients in crisis situations receive proper support.
“We have such a great relationship with RMHS,” T.J. said. “They give us exactly what we need, but not too much information.”
Whitney said she, Julian and staff members have been stopped by police before. She wants parents to know that they can take control of a situation by calling the police before a stranger does, so that police have the best information coming into it. This can help prevent miscommunication that could escalate the problem.
“The number one thing is that they’re at their worst when you see them, but you need to believe in what they can be at their best,” Whitney said, holding back tears. “When somebody reaches out to Julian with humanity, we are touched.”