Registries of disabled individuals debated in police reform talks

HARTFORD, Conn. – Victoria Mitchell wishes the police had a complete picture of her son’s struggles with mental illness and reacted differently before an officer shot him dead in Ansonia, Connecticut last year.

Her son Michael Gregory was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide several times. He was in a crisis when he was shot dead on January 2, 2020 when he accused officials with a knife after telling them to shoot him.

Mitchell, a nurse who cares for people with mental illness, is supporting some parts of a proposed statewide law enforcement registry for people with disabilities, including those with mental illness. The idea is being investigated by the state’s Task Force on Police Transparency and Accountability to alert officials to a person’s disability and to avoid the use of lethal violence.

“Had something like this been available, maybe they would have acted differently – knowing he was out of his mind,” she said. “You could have called someone to de-escalate the situation.”

The Connecticut proposal would be a significant addition to the voluntary registration programs already in place at large numbers of law enforcement agencies across the country. These are primarily intended to help officials find people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia who are missing and bring them home.

A smaller number of departments have added people with autism and bipolar disorder to improve their interactions with people with developmental and mental disabilities in response to public screams of police being shot.

Since 2015, police shootings have affected nearly a quarter of the nearly 6,000 fatal police shootings in the United States, according to a Washington Post database.

However, advocates for disabled people said there are significant problems with the registries, including further stigma on people with disabilities and privacy concerns.

Registers are a “terrible idea,” in part because of the mistaken belief that they will lead to better results in police encounters, said Kathleen Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, which provides legal services to low-income people with mental disabilities.

“I think it might as well be that, knowing that this is someone with an X, Y, Z diagnosis, because of the bias and stigmatized views people have about people with Having certain diagnoses may just cause things to fail. unintentionally, but that is exactly what could happen, ”she said.

Disability attorneys also have concerns about the government collecting information about disabilities from people and how long the information is kept.

Similar concerns arose after the register was raised by the Connecticut Police Accountability Task Force, and the panel recently decided to investigate the issue further before deciding to officially recommend it to state lawmakers.

“It’s a tough balancing act,” said Jonathan Slifka, chair of the subcommittee of the Task Force to Improve Police Interaction with the Disabled Community. “There is an inherent reluctance on behalf of people within the disabled community to identify themselves as there is the potential for stigma, bias and everything else.”

Slifka and Flaherty are members of the disabled community.

Names in the Connecticut registry are voluntarily entered by individuals who wish to be included in the registry, or possibly their families.

Registers are one of many ideas being considered across the country to improve police interactions with disabled and mentally ill people. Others include sending mental health experts to call or replace the police, and providing more crisis intervention and de-escalation training for officers.

Many police officers believe that registers help officers when they encounter people with mental illness and other disabilities.

In Santa Clarita, California, the city and the local Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office established a registry in 2004 to improve interactions with the disabled community after police officers arrested two teenagers with autism in various incidents within the same week but were not aware of their disabilities.

While the Santa Clarita registry has focused in recent years on finding people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and autism who get lost and return home, it’s also open to people with bipolar disorder. It includes a few hundred people and has been a valuable tool for the community, said Kathleen Secchi, coordinator at the local Family Focus Resource Center, one of many community partners in the registry.

The Westport, Connecticut Police Department created a voluntary registry for people with disabilities or mental illnesses in 2018. This allows people with disabilities or their relatives to register for the list. About 20 people are now registered in the city with about 28,000 people, said Police Lieutenant David Wolf.

“We see people and deal with people in crisis fairly regularly. Therefore, it is very important that we are prepared, have good strategies and have large resources that we can reach,” said Wolf.

Mitchell, the Connecticut mother whose son was shot dead by police, at least said the police should record in their own computer systems when they encounter people with mental illness and other disabilities, and make that information available to officers during a call .

About six weeks before he was shot, Ansonia police arrested Gregory for violating his girlfriend’s protection order, although his girlfriend and Mitchell asked officers to take him to a mental hospital instead.

Mitchell said she believed the police knew, or should have known, of the arrest when responding to the call that led to the shooting of Officer Brendon Nelson, which a prosecutor believed was warranted. Nelson was among the officers who arrested Gregory six weeks earlier.

Ansonia police declined to comment on the shootings, but said officers were receiving training on de-escalation and how to deal with the mentally ill.

“If the police get a call and they are in a situation with someone and it is a crisis or mental health issue, why can’t they put it on their logs or records?” Said Mitchell. “If he had been told,” You will not go to jail, we will only take you to the hospital to have you examined. “Maybe he would have put the knife down.”

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