Colorado lawmakers were already working on a measure this year to ensure law enforcement officers have enough training to properly interact with people who are developmentally delayed or have physical disabilities.
But in the wake of the violent arrest last year of a 73-year-old woman in Loveland they’ve expanded House Bill 1122 to give police and sheriff’s deputies more tools to identify and respond to people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, too.
“Is the person not complying out of defiance? Or can they not hear what you’re saying? Are they overwhelmed? The hope is that through better understanding, through better training there’s a checklist that happens before you’re throwing someone to the ground or handcuffing them,” said state Rep. Meg Froelich, a Greenwood Village Democrat.
Bad outcomes during police interactions with people who have disabilities have been documented across the country. In 2003, for instance, a Denver police officer fatally shot a 15-year-old developmentally delayed teen who was holding a large knife.
But the arrest of Karen Garner, who has dementia, by Loveland police officers is putting the issue back in the spotlight.
“We were thinking about dementia before Loveland,” said Sen. Chris Kolker, a Centennial Democrat. “Then Loveland hit and obviously made everyone more aware.”
Garner was taken into custody in June after she allegedly left a store without paying for about $14 worth of merchandise. During the arrest, Garner ignored an officer’s commands, at which point he grabbed her arm and pushed her to the ground. The incident was captured on video and has since been shared widely on the internet.
A federal lawsuit filed by Garner says she suffered a dislocated shoulder and did not receive medical care for about six hours.
“Garner’s story is an extreme outcome,” said Coral Cosway, the senior director of public policy and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado. “But we hear plenty of stories of difficult interactions with first responders. That’s not uncommon in our community.”
Cosway said first responders don’t know how to recognize dementia and, as a result, may not know how to interact with people suffering from the disease.
Ali Thompson, who serves on the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council who also works as a law enforcement officer, said “we are not equipping our first responders with the tools they need.”
“People with disabilities are being arrested or having force used against them because of officers’ lack of understanding of disability,” Thompson said. “Examples are numerous and include people who are deaf not hearing police commands and being tased, people with cerebral palsy or in a diabetic emergency not passing roadside maneuvers and being arrested for DUI.”
Thompson said the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board curriculum requires more than 300 hours of academic instruction but only has a handful of references to people with disabilities. All of those references are around crisis situations.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, would create a 12-member commission to be appointed by the attorney general. The panel would have until Feb. 28, 2022, to recommend a disability-interaction curriculum to the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.
The appointees would include two people with a disability, two parents of a child with a disability and two representatives from advocacy organizations. The other members would be a person from a disability community not otherwise represented on the commission, a representative of a statewide organization of current and former peace officers, a representative of a statewide organization of chiefs of police, a representative of a statewide organization of county sheriffs, a member of the POST Board and a member of the POST Board’s curriculum subject matter expert committee.
House Bill 1122 comes as Democrats at the Colorado Capitol are working to broadly change how law enforcement officers interact with the public in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the death of Elijah McClain after being arrested by Aurora police officers in 2019.
“While it’s part of our broader (police accountability) discussion, we’ve been really fortunate on this bill that police and law enforcement has been on board since the beginning,” said Froelich, the state representative.
The measure is supported by the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police.
“Mandating training to improve interactions with people with disabilities, while simultaneously allocating resources, will benefit both officers and the citizens they serve,” Officer Mike Foley with the Fraternal Order of Police said in a written statement. “Standardized mental health training would mitigate critical incidents and allow every citizen with a disability to be heard and respected when encountering police officers. This legislation is an important step in giving all first responders the critical training they need to successfully provide exemplary service that their citizens deserve.”
Sen. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton, are also spearheading the bill, which is next scheduled to be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee.