Peace officers are trained to maintain safety when responding to dispatch calls, which sometimes requires more authority and control when a suspect ignores the officers’ verbal commands. However, the typical command and control techniques aren’t the best response with certain subjects. For example, using a more commanding presence with a special needs person in crisis actually may escalate an already-tense situation.
A person with special needs is considered to have diminished capacity, which means his ability to think clearly or behave in a socially acceptable, law-abiding manner can be affected by a brain condition. Mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are the most common types of special needs.
Special needs persons are more likely to come in contact with law enforcement when they are faced with a crisis, such as an emotionally stressful event, a traumatic change in their life, or a serious interruption in their mental balance. The crisis affects their perception, decision-making, and problem-solving abilities, and they may not have effective coping skills to deal with the crisis. This is the point at which peace officers often get involved.
If an officer believes he is dealing with a special needs person in crisis, he must take that person’s diminished capacity into account. The officer should try nontraditional techniques to achieve a safe, successful outcome. For instance, when an officer’s safety is not in jeopardy, it may be more effective to approach the person with a “de-escalation” mindset and a less physical, less authoritative method to resolve the problem.
One effective method is the EAR Model, which stands for engage, assess, and resolve. First, you should calmly engage the special needs person to make a connection; the first 10 seconds of this interaction are crucial. Ask the person his name and tell him your name. Ask the person open-ended questions, such as “What’s going on?” or “What can I help you with?” You should tell him what you are observing through “you” statements, and you can personalize the conversation and take a non-blaming tone with “I” statements.
During this initial contact, it’s important to show empathy and make the person feel heard. You also need to be patient, because he may not be able to quickly process the situation and therefore delay in responding to your questions. Avoid criticizing, arguing, commanding, or giving ultimatums, and instead try to model calm behavior and tone of voice.
Next, gather as much information as possible about the person. Remove distractions from the scene, such as onlookers or people negatively trying to influence the person. Also, remember that the individual may be overwhelmed not just by what’s happening around him, but also by thoughts, sensations, or beliefs he may be experiencing.
Ask the person whether he has a medical condition, is receiving medical treatment, or is taking medication. If he will not speak to you, try to talk with his friends or family members. Reinforce that you are there to assist the person and, again, be patient while waiting for a response.
Once you’ve assessed the person, start thinking about how to resolve the problem. Things to consider: Has the person committed a crime? Does he need to be taken to a hospital? Are health care personnel needed at the scene? Does your department have policies for dealing with special populations?
When you have decided your course of action, be sure to announce your intentions to the person. Let him know what you plan to do, and be patient and repetitive in your explanation. You should give only short, simple instructions, and wait until he understands each instruction before giving him another.
The EAR Model is just one de-escalation technique that law enforcement can use with the special needs population. Officers can learn more about this model and others through an Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy course titled Interacting with the Special Needs Population.
Above all, remember that when dealing with such individuals, law enforcement’s ultimate goal is to cut through fear and confusion and achieve voluntary compliance. Using a de-escalation technique will go a long way toward helping officers realize a safe and peaceful result.
Morgan A. Linn
Assistant Attorney General and Legal Analyst
• Ronald Davitt, OPOTA law enforcement training officer, can answer questions on training for interacting with special needs populations. E-mail him at Ronald.Davitt@OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov.
• For information on OPOTA courses covering special needs populations, visit www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov/OPOTA or www.OHLEG.org/eOPOTA or e-mail askOPOTA@OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov.