Police trained to deal with disabilities

By Elise Franco

AUSTINTOWN — Township law enforcement is becoming more attuned to interacting with residents with a physical or mental disability.

Police Chief Bob Gavalier said in-service training in recent years has focused on teaching officers how to best handle situations involving a person who may be disabled in some way.

Gavalier said one session in this year’s training focused on communicating with the deaf and hearing-impaired. He said training in this area is important because several officers have dealt with deaf residents.

“The major thing is us being able to communicate and understand their disability,” he said. “And understand how they perceive us.”

Pat Maille, interpreter coordinator for Community Center for the Deaf, said she approached Austintown about teaching a training course because oftentimes law enforcement officials aren’t well versed in such things.

“We visited a police academy recently and the part on deaf and hard of hearing in their handbook was maybe half a page,” she said. “We knew we should really be expanding on that.”

Maille said education is the only way officers can know how to properly interact with these residents.

“This is part of advocating for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” she said. “A lot of times these people are afraid to talk to officers or communicate with them.”

Gavalier said his officers need to better understand how to communicate with and relate to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.

“The major thing that can happen is the officer doesn’t realize the disability right away,” he said. “The officer will react on what he perceives is happening instead of what is actually happening.”

Patrolman Tom Collins said he’s had to deal with deaf residents before.

Collins said he’s been called to one family’s home on domestic disputes to help mediate.

“Because they’re [hearing impaired] they tend not be to able to work out their differences,” he said.

Collins said the biggest struggle is the length of time it takes to get the parties calmed down.

“For someone who is hearing impaired it takes more time to mediate the situation,” he said. “The course taught us that patience is necessary when dealing with them.”

Collins said one thing officers should realize is that, like someone who raises his or her voice when worked up, a deaf person’s hand signals become more exaggerated. “Officers shouldn’t take that as a sign of aggression,” he said.

Capt. Brian Kloss said autism is another disability officers need to know how to handle. Kloss recently completed a seminar by the Autism Society of Greater Cleveland.

The seminar “taught us how to recognize the signs of autism and how to approach and handle someone with it,” he said.

Kloss said no matter the severity of the disorder, those with autism usually have a set way of doing things. He said officers need to be aware of what could force an autistic person out of his or her comfort zone.

“You can go into a house where the TV is blaring and the radio is on,” Kloss said. “If you shut that off it could set them off because now they’re out of their comfort zone.

“The officer’s initial thought is, it’s just someone who needs disciplined — and that may not be the case.”

Kloss said the department is purchasing a DVD that officers will watch during roll call that will teach them how to look for signs of autism.

“I think it’s going to be absolutely helpful,” he said.

Gavalier said his officers have to know how to properly interact with a person no matter what type of disability he or she may have.

“This training makes the officers more sensitive to them ... they learn the types of barriers [both parties] have to work through,” he said.


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