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Volume 4 , Issue 1 Date: Spring 2004 Topic: Youth with Developmental Disabilities and the Juvenile Justice System

Massachusetts State Police and Developmentally Disabled Youth:
Interview with State Trooper Steve Johnson
by LEND Fellows - Diane Maxson and Iris Thompson

LEND: Trooper Johnson, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Many police departments are working to increase their force’s understanding of the special issues facing developmentally disabled youth. Are there any special policies and/or procedures that are used by the MA State police when there is question about a youth's behavior or manner?

Trooper Johnson: Policies and procedures when dealing with youths, in general, are standardized by state law, mandating the way state and local police officers arrest, detain, question and handle all juveniles. I am not aware of any specific policies and procedures at either the state or local level that apply solely to youths with developmental disabilities. All juveniles are
handled in a very careful fashion with almost immediate involvement with the parents and probation personnel depending on the age. Generally, there are no procedures in place directed at the developmentally disabled that differ from those youths without these problems.

LEND: How hard is it to determine that a child is developmentally disabled? Where and when does this determination typically take place?

Trooper Johnson: My feeling is that in many situations in which police are called it is impossible to address this issue unless a family member or close friend advises the police immediately upon their arrival, or even preferably before arrival through the dispatcher. Police in these types of situations, like a typical "disturbance call", have little time to assess this added detail on their own. It is my experience that most children with these types of problems don't look that radically different then the "normal" child, and when an autistic adolescent or adult appears to be out of control, they look just like any other person who could be the source of the problem on a typical disturbance call. Even in cases where the officer is aware of a developmental problem, the officer must bring an end to the danger as quickly and as safely as possible. If restraint is necessary to prevent injury, that must take priority over all other considerations. After the safety of all the individuals involved is assured, then there is time for some determination of any individual’s particular developmental problems and how these issues impacted the situation.

LEND: What are the typical circumstances under which a State Trooper might encounter a youth with developmental disabilities? Are these circumstances different from those of local police?

Trooper Johnson: In rural areas, state police function in the same fashion as local officers; answering the same types of calls. In suburban and urban settings, the typical uniform officer has a highway patrol function, and comes into contact with all citizens in the similar settings, these include most commonly, car accidents, motor vehicle law enforcement, and assistance of stranded travelers. Since developmentally disabled people travel in motor vehicles, they are as likely as the rest of the population to encounter state police officers in these types of situations. In Massachusetts each District Attorney's Office is assigned a complement of state police detectives that investigate serious crimes such as murder, sexual assaults and narcotics trafficking. If a developmentally disabled person is a victim, witness or a perpetrator of these serious crimes they would again come in contact with a state police officer.

LEND: Are there any aspects of your encounters with developmentally disabled youths as victims or alleged perpetrators which make you feel uncomfortable or in need of additional information?

Trooper Johnson: The only things that come quickly to mind would be crimes that involve sexual assaults or abuse.

LEND: What are the typical mistakes that developmentally disabled kids make when dealing with the Police?

Trooper Johnson: Obviously any type of violent response to a police officer would be a mistake that should be avoided. Angry words uttered by a person with development disabilities should not cause a big problem, and the officer should be able to deal with this type of response.

LEND: What are the typical mistakes that parents of developmentally disabled kids make when dealing with the police? How can they be better prepared?

Trooper Johnson: They should immediately advise the officer of the particular person's disability. They should understand that physical safety of all persons involved in a situation, including the officer, is paramount, and that the officer is there because a problem has occurred and has gotten out of hand. The parents must understand that the typical officer wants to quell any disturbance as peaceably and as quickly as possible, and then wants to turn the situation over to individuals better trained to deal with the underlining problems. The typical police officer is not trained, nor equipped to function as a social worker.

LEND: What help can the professional community provide to help ensure positive outcomes for developmentally disabled kids who are involved with the police?

Trooper Johnson: Professional police departments all have regular in-service training, along with the initial pre-deployment training. The professional community could offer to develop and participate in these training sessions. Training could involve ways to quickly identify individuals with developmental disabilities; ways to successfully calm a situation down involve individuals with these problems; and where referrals to applicable social service agencies can be obtained. Additionally, Law enforcement managers often chose the curriculum for an in-service training program based on civil liability issues that a particular department might face. If it is brought to their attention that training in a certain area might reduce a possible judgment against them, the managers may chose to incorporate that particular issue into the training.

LEND Fellows: Trooper Johnson, thank you for taking the time to provide our readers with the police officer’s perspective regarding young people with developmental disabilities. We appreciate your time, interest, and dedication.

Lieutenant Stephen Johnson is a 23 year veteran of law enforcement service. He holds a BA in Criminal Justice from Clark University and an MA in Criminal Justice from Anna Maria College. He has worked as a narcotics investigator, a K-9 handler, and a typical trooper working both rural patrol areas and highway traffic enforcement. He is currently assigned as an investigator attached to the United States Attorney’s Office in Boston working on organized crime cases.

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