USF Center Bridges Gap Between Deputies and Inmates with Disabilities

TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 17, 2009) --  Even two years later, anyone who watches the grainy video cannot help but to  cringe.


A jail deputy enters with a man in a wheelchair who is being booked for charges related to a traffic incident. She orders him to stand up. He tells her he is paralyzed. She dumps him from his wheelchair and proceeds to frisk him.


The incident, which drew international attention, was a wakeup call for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office that their detention deputies were lacking specific training in how to manage inmates with disabilities.


Looking for insights and a new training program, the sheriff’s office turned to the University of South Florida’s Center for Excellence on Developmental Disabilities to create a new training program which is guiding new deputies on how to safely interact and communicate with inmates with disabilities, keeping them and the inmate safe.


So far, the training has been a success. The center is now leading the way in law enforcement and plans to continue working closely with the local sheriff’s office to share the curriculum statewide in 2010, said Nila Benito, coordinator of Community Supports and Public Policy at the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities who created the program with Bobbie Vaughn, FCIC’s training director.


“There were plenty of curriculums that focused on people with disabilities as victims of crime but not as offenders,” Benito said.


HCSO’s Training Division contacted the Florida Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities, which in turn contacted Benito to seek assistance in training deputies to work with disabled suspects.


“We try to give them tips and insights about what to do in the course of their work,” said Benito. “However, there is the bigger goal of helping them understand the lives of the individuals with disabilities in the community in general.”


With assistance from HCSO Col. Jim Previtera and Deputy Brian Rogers, the center’s staff developed a curriculum that was first presented in July 2009 and again in November 2009.


“We did research on existing training materials, resources, and curricula in the area of disability awareness and law enforcement and found several curriculums that address the needs of individuals with disabilities and law enforcement officers in community settings, but we did not find anything that addressed detention and jails,” Benito said.


The training consists of two days of activities that verses current deputies and new recruits on facts, statistics, truths and myths on various kinds of physical, mental, intellectual and developmental disabilities.


Cadets at November’s seminar participated in interactive sessions designed to teach them the common frustrations people with disabilities experience, such as being blindfolded to experience blindness, lip reading to experience deafness and communicating only via keyboards.


Not surprisingly, the jovial group of young deputies joked and teased each other – only to get a stern rebuke when Rogers informed the group that if other inmates were acting that way towards other inmates with disabilities, it needed to be nipped in the bud.


“Think about not having a way to communicate and how frustrating that can be,” Benito told them.


The curriculum was designed after a survey and focus groups determined what deputies’ preconceived notions about people with disabilities. Results showed that many deputies thought disabled inmates should be treated like everyone else.


“It seemed that some of the deputies didn’t realize that there were many things they didn’t know about,” Benito said. “Once they learned new information they realized that inmates with disabilities did need to be treated differently depending on their disability.”


Benito’s work largely focuses on autism, a personal interest for her as the mother of two autistic teenage sons. While she does not worry too much about them being perceived as aggressive, she understands how easily a misunderstanding can occur.


The challenges can begin from the moment law enforcement encounters a person with disabilities, who may not be capable of understanding why they are being arrested nor able to communicate to the officer.


As a result, officers may use higher levels of force on struggling perpetrators. Squad cars lights and sirens can also create too much sensory input, particularly for those with autism, which can cause even greater problems with communication and control.


Failure on the part of the officer to recognize the inherent characteristics of this particular disability may result in an inappropriate response or, worse, an unnecessary arrest or excessive use of force,” Benito said. “It's imperative that all law enforcement officers have the opportunity to attend training and learn about autism.”


After an inmate is booked into jail, if an inmate needs special attention they often go to the infirmary to be cared for by a nurse to protect them from other inmates, Rogers said.


“There are a lot of opportunities to improve the care and the way we manage medical issues among inmates,” said Bethany Weaver, the jail’s medical advisor. “Being incarcerated immediately causes an issue with access to care unless you have things in place to correct that.”




Daylina Miller

News Writer

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