Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Written Submission to the Record for the Senate Judiciary Committee on Law Enforcement Responses to People with Disabilities

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Written Submission to the Record

WrittenTestimony of Rebecca Cokley, Executive Director, National Council on Disability

Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety

Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the

Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights

U.S. Senate

Tuesday, April 29, 2014
10:00 A.M.

Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 226

Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Cruz, and Esteemed Members of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights:


Thank you for the opportunity to provide brief written testimony on the important topic of today’s hearing, “Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety.” We commend the Subcommittee for shining a light on this topic by hosting a hearing and soliciting information from stakeholders, and we offer ourselves to the Committee as an ongoing resource as you examine this topic and consider appropriate legislative responses.

The National Council on Disability (NCD) is an independent federal agency that provides advice to the Administration, Congress, and other diverse stakeholders, and thoughtful, timely analysis and recommendations to inform policy development, revision, and enforcement. As a federal voice for 56 million Americans with disabilities, including those with psychiatric and intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD), NCD is committed to advancing policy solutions that create a more inclusive country in which all Americans have equal opportunities to contribute to society.

NCD has written extensively over its 36-year history on the intersections of disability and the criminal justice system; dependency courts; crime victimization; child welfare, mental health systems; and education systems. In 2011, NCD hosted a regional policy forum in Portland, Oregon, during which we hosted panel discussions with leaders from state departments of corrections, mental health courts, and police departments on topics including law enforcement models and mental health courts; transitions back to the community following incarceration for people with psychiatric disabilities; and forging police/community advocacy relationships that assist in deescalating crisis moments and preventing tragedies. And in the wake of many of the recent mass shootings, NCD has offered advice to Congress, the Vice President, and the President as each has engaged related topics. We are grateful for the opportunity to bring the information we’ve learned and the advice we’ve offered to bear in our testimony today.

Facts and Myths about Disability and Crime

Misunderstandings, fears, and stereotypes about different types of disabilities have led to tragic outcomes throughout U.S. history. During the American Eugenics movement, pseudo-scientific “evidence” gave way to popular thought linking disability and criminality, and the inheritability of both.1 The solutions advanced in the day were segregation and forcible sterilizations. As a result of these myths, for decades of U.S. history, people with disabilities were devalued, isolated from the rest of society, prevented from attending school, getting married, or being a part of their communities. Thankfully, people with disabilities now enjoy far greater civil rights that have come hard fought in the least fifty years. However, fears, myths, and stereotypes persist.

In the latest data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, people with disabilities were victims of violent crimes at nearly three times the rate of those without disabilities.2 In 2012 alone, 1.3 million nonfatal violent crimes were perpetrated against people with disabilities ages 12 or older.3 And despite what some may conclude in light of recent tragedies, statistics bear out the fact that people with disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of crimes than the perpetrators of them, and therefore in need of supportive relationships and understanding with law enforcement, fears and assumptions about people with all types of disabilities have instead contributed to unfortunate and at times tragic consequences.

Public perceptions rooted in a history of stereotypes have given way to many instances in which people with disabilities receive disparate and inappropriate treatment by law enforcement. Presumptions of linkages between psychiatric disabilities and violence –not borne out in fact – have led to coerced treatments and commitments. Myths and misunderstandings about people with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, those who are deaf and hard of hearing, those living with AIDS / HIV, and a variety of intellectual and developmental (ID/DD) disabilities have led to wrongful arrests, overuse of force, deprivation of much needed medical attention, and even loss of life.

In the pages that follow, we offer findings and recommendations for the Subcommittee to consider     , excerpted from our previous body of work. We suggest that progress will come as a result of improved cultural competence through law enforcement trainings; greater investment in a spectrum of mental health services; and involvement of and relationships with the disability community by law enforcement, as partners in progress.

Improved Cultural Competence through Law Enforcement Trainings

Unfortunately, when people with disabilities are victims of crimes or are experiencing an emergency, they often cannot rely upon law enforcement agencies to protect or serve them appropriately due to a lack of training and cultural competence about disability. Law enforcement officers are vital public servants and heroes of our communities. As first responders, the community relies upon them to address myriad situations of varying complexity and ensure the public safety. In order to execute this charge appropriately in instances involving people with disabilities, it is essential to develop law enforcement’s cultural competence about disability in the same manner as a local police department would seek to develop cultural competence about an immigrant population with particular customs and language within its precinct.

NCD recommends: 

  • All law enforcement, criminal justice, and correctional personnel, including prison guards and probation officers, as well as people working in victim assistance programs, should submit to mandatory training that sensitizes these public servants to recognize certain disabilities; creates awareness of the unique needs of certain groups of people with disabilities; and informs about specific requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws that protect the civil and human rights of people with disabilities.4
  • People with a variety of disabilities and community organizations representing them should be included in the development and facilitation of such trainings as well as in all policy and program development at the local, state, and federal levels.5  
  • People with disabilities, particularly those with psychiatric disabilities or ID/DD should also receive training to learn about their rights when in situations involving law enforcement, and Congress should increase funding for such peer-managed support and training programs.6

Greater Investment in a Spectrum of Mental Health Services

There are many barriers to accessing mental health services in the United States, chief of which are stigma about seeking and receiving mental health treatment, and underfunding. As a result, jails are some of the largest mental health providers in the country,7 putting law enforcement and correctional personnel in roles they are often ill-suited to play. Over the years, NCD has consistently advised Congress and the Administration to pursue efforts to improve the quality, availability, and affordability of mental health services and supports to reverse this trend and eliminate the “warehousing” of people with disabilities in prisons and other institutions.

Community mental health programs can offer excellent, comprehensive services when sufficiently funded and supported. Unfortunately, the severe deficiency in current resources means that these services are often available only to people who are in immediate crisis and who have already endured multiple hospitalizations. Recently, pilot programs have been developed across the country to better meet the needs of people when they have their first psychotic episode. These programs are community-based and help to address critical unmet needs.

NCD recommends: 

  • Congress should allocate funds toward a spectrum of community-based mental health strategies across the lifespan, including peer-to-peer supports,8 which are being added to clinical services9 across the country.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) should invest in and award “system of care” expansion grants to improve the availability, quality, and affordability of community mental health services, mobile crisis services, housing, and peer supports for people with serious psychiatric disabilities, and to extend mental health preventative and maintenance care access and options for the general population.10
  • Policymakers should look for ways to include the views of people with disabilities, particularly those with psychiatric and ID/DD, and their advocates when crafting new laws and regulations. Excluding their insights and viewpoints will likely perpetuate flaws or oversights in policies of the past.11

Community Reentry of Inmates with Disabilities

In 2005, 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of jail inmates were people with mental health problems.12 Approximately74 percent of state prisoners and 76 percent of jail inmates with psychiatric disabilities also had substance dependence or abuse.13 Inmates with psychiatric and developmental disabilities are often placed with the general inmate population. They are a vulnerable group, subject to bullying and manipulation. Adjustment to prison life can be difficult, and they can find themselves in dangerous and threatening situations. These prison experiences often exacerbate their disabilities.

Youth with disabilities constitute a large portion of youth in the juvenile justice system, with some studies indicating as high as 85 percent of children in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, and yet only 37 percent receive services while in school.14 Failing to adequately address the needs of students with disabilities, particularly at-risk students, creates what has been termed “the school-to-prison pipeline.”15

Access to disability-related supports and services upon release from prison can make the difference for a person with a disability hoping to successfully reenter society. Many federal and state policies require that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid be terminated while a person is in prison. Leaving prison with a major mental or physical disability without health insurance and no funds for medication can only worsen these conditions. Transition planning for inmates with disabilities is of paramount importance for successfully addressing obstacles to successful reentry into the community.

Many of the difficulties faced by inmates returning to the community were addressed in The Second Chance Act of 2008 (SCA),16 which was designed to improve outcomes for people returning to communities from prisons and jails. This pioneering legislation authorizes federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, victims support, and other services that can help reduce recidivism. However, programs under the SCA are funded through discretionary grants and therefore are subject to termination if the SCA is not reauthorized or funded by Congress. Transitioning inmates with disabilities need a consistent and reliable safety net to safeguard their access to disability-related supports and services when returning to the community.

NCD recommends: 

  • The U.S. Department of Justice should require correction facilities to create a prerelease assessment and individualized reentry plan for all inmates with disabilities, including a needs assessment and assistance in arranging for health care and medications, reinstitution of SSI and Medicaid benefits, special education services for those returning to school, vocational services, and accessible housing.17


NCD is grateful to the Subcommittee for elevating this important topic through today’s hearing and is grateful to the men and women in law enforcement who strive to ensure public safety. Law enforcement and the disability community can be partners in improving the appropriateness of law enforcement’s response to Americans with disabilities. We believe that demonstrable progress will come as a result of improved cultural competence through law enforcement trainings; greater investment in a spectrum of mental health; and involvement of and relationships with the disability community by law enforcement.

NCD stands ready to be of additional service to the Subcommittee as needed on this or any other topic implicating the rights of people with disabilities.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide this written testimony.

[1] Edwin Black, War Against the Weak (2003), 16.

[2] Erika Harrell, Ph.D., “Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009 – 2012 – Statistical Tables” (2014), at:

[3] Id.

[4] National Council on Disability, From Privileges to Rights: People Labeled with Psychiatric Disabilities Speak for Themselves (2000) /publications/2000/Jan202000.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.; National Council on Disability, Inclusive Livable Communities for People with Psychiatric Disabilities, 8(March 17, 2008) /publications/2008/03172008(“People who have recovered from mental illnesses and have first-hand knowledge and involvement with consumer/survivor-run self-help programs need to be included in designing future anti-stigma efforts.”).

[7] Bridget O’Shea, “Psychiatric Patients with No Place to Go but Jail,” The New York Times, February 18, 2012,

[8] National Council on Disability, Inclusive Livable Communities for People with Psychiatric Disabilities (2008), at:/publications/2008/03172008.

[9] Michelle P. Salyers Ph.D., Sam Tsemberis Ph.D.,  “ACT and Recovery: Integrating Evidence-Based Practice and Recovery Orientation on Assertive Community Treatment Teams,” Community Mental Health Journal 43  (2007).

[10] National Council on Disability, National Disability Policy: A Progress Report (2013), at:/progress_reports/10312013.

[11] National Council on Disability, From Privileges to Rights, 72.

[12] Doris J. James and Lauren E. Glaze, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2006).

[13] Id.

[14] “SPLC Launches School to Prison Reform Project to Help At-Risk Children Get Special Education Services, Avoid Incarceration’‘(2007),Southern Poverty Law Center,

[15] Id.

[16] Second Chance Act of 2007: Community Safety Through Recidivism Prevention, Pub. L. No. 110-199, 122 Stat. 657 (2007).

[17] National Council on Disability, National Disability Policy: A Progress Report (2011), at:/progress_reports/Oct312011.

An official website of the National Council on Disability