Abstract

Individuals with developmental disabilities are 4 to 10 times more likely to become crime victims than individuals without disabilities (D. Sobsey, D. Wells, R. Lucardie, & S. Mansell, 1995). Victimization rates for persons with disabilities is highest for sexual assault (more than 10 times as high) and robbery (more than 12 times as high). There are a number of factors related to individuals' with disabilities susceptibility to interactions with the criminal justice system. In addition to these factors, many significant barriers exist, both real and perceived, that limit investigation and prosecution of these cases. How police officers perceive and understand disability play significant roles in how these cases develop and evolve. The purpose of this study was to assess police officer knowledge and perceptions of persons with disabilities.

“Every day across the country, from our largest cities to our quietest crossroads, police officers stand watch over our citizens, selflessly risking their lives to protect individuals, families, neighborhoods, and property against crime. …Police officers fulfill a great calling in upholding the rule of law in our society. Law enforcement officers choose their profession and take their oaths knowing that theirs is a dangerous job. They accept these risks, answering the call of duty and demonstrating a willingness to serve that reflects the best of America.”

—President George W. Bush, A Proclamation, Police Officers Memorial Day and Police Week, 2003

The number of individuals with disabilities who are 5 years and older in the United States has been estimated at almost 50 million (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002). As the number of individuals with disabilities in the population increases, police officers may find themselves investigating a greater number of crimes involving individuals with disabilities. Research has indicated that people with disabilities are more likely to be crime victims than witnesses or perpetrators (Petersilia, Fotte, & Cromwell, 2001). For many years, studies have shown that people with developmental or other disabilities are disproportionately criminally victimized (Johnson & Sigler, 2000; Stimson & Best, 1991; Valenti-Hein & Schwartz, 1995). Research also has suggested that persons with developmental disabilities are 4 to 10 times more likely to become crime victims than persons without a disability (Sobsey, Wells, Lucardie, & Mansell, 1995). This victimization rate is consistent regardless of living situation, including group homes, private homes, and intermediate care. Some studies estimate that almost 80% of women with developmental disabilities have been sexually assaulted at one point in their lives (Lumley & Miltenberger, 1997; Sorenson, 2002). One Canadian study (Stimson & Best, 1991) found that, among adults with developmental disabilities, as many as 83% of women and 32% of men were the victims of sexual assault. In a study of 482 children with documented maltreatment, more than half of the deaf children (53.4%) reported being sexually abused (Sullivan, Vernon, & Scanlan, 1987).

Furthermore, individuals with disabilities appear more likely to be victimized repeatedly than individuals without disabilities. According to a study involving the sexual abuse of persons with disabilities, 79.6% were sexually assaulted on more than one occasion, and 50% of those experienced more than 10 victimizations (Sobsey & Doe, 1991). Reasons for these victimization rates are well known to populations who interact with people with disabilities, including long-standing barriers to reporting and prosecution, the physical vulnerability of the victim, and the abuser taking advantage of a position of trust. Perhaps most astonishing, 97%–99% of abusers of victims with developmental disabilities are known and trusted by the victim (Baladerian, 1991). Research (McAfee, Cockram, & Wolfe, 2001) has suggested that police officers are influenced in their perceptions of crime and in their response tendencies by the characteristics of the persons involved. Although there was no specific pattern of responses in McAfee et al.'s study, the police officers responded differently to crimes involving dependent adults. The presence of an intellectual disability in the victim, the alleged assailant, or both, played critical role(s) in determining how officers responded to crimes (McAfee, Cockram, & Wolfe, 2001). Dependent adults may be particularly susceptible to being victims of crimes due to a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors (see Table 1).

Table 1

Susceptibility to Being a Victim of Violent Crime in Dependent Adults

Susceptibility to Being a Victim of Violent Crime in Dependent Adults
Susceptibility to Being a Victim of Violent Crime in Dependent Adults

Regardless of the factors that bring dependent adults into contact with the judicial system, a police officer is very likely to be the first point of contact. The officer's ability to respond appropriately is critical to the dependent adult's experience in the criminal justice system. In this study, we examined police officers' perceptions of their abilities to respond to crimes involving dependent adults with their actual knowledge of common disabilities and characteristics.

Method

The primary purpose of this study was to assess police officer knowledge of persons with disabilities and compare it to their perceived competence in responding to crimes involving dependent adults. The complementary purpose was to use this study's results to establish best practices for training police officers in handling crimes involving dependent adults. Last, this study established baseline information on police officers' knowledge of persons with disabilities.

Sample

This study included 124 random respondents who were, at the time of the study, employed, sworn police officers working in rural, urban, and suburban areas. The rank of each respondent ranged from patrol officer to senior detective.

Instrumentation

We created a survey consisting of 10 questions. We developed questions based on our potential to solicit broad opinions on disability, knowledge about disability, and perceived competence in handling crimes involving individuals with disabilities among police officers. The survey was piloted on 25 random police officers (ranking between patrol officer and senior detective) from the same county. The objective of the survey was to explore the opinions of police officers on disability and their perceived competence in handling crimes involving individuals with disabilities. The pilot group was asked to evaluate the content of the survey to determine if the questions were consistent with the stated objective. The pilot group also was asked to evaluate the ease of use of the survey. Responses from the pilot group indicated that the survey met the stated objective and was easy to use. The results from the pilot group lend evidence to both construct and face validity. The outcome of the instrument established baseline information on police officers' perceptions and knowledge regarding disability. It did not determine competence.

Study Design

Commanding officers delivered the survey to the police officers in this study. To ensure freedom of responses, the respondents anonymously returned the completed surveys (by dropping the surveys in a locked box) to the commanding officers, who then returned the survey box to the researchers. The survey comprised 10 questions. Data were analyzed using both quantitative and qualitative methods. For Questions 1–5 and 7, respondents' free responses, which served as the basis for this study, were analyzed through content analysis. Content analysis identifies special characteristics of messages through a systematic coding of the message content and the development of categories based on the codes that emerge (Berg, 1989). An open coding procedure was used in which we read each participant's statements sentence by sentence, keeping in mind that the main objective of the study was perceived competence in dealing with crimes involving dependent adults. As themes emerged, the researchers noted patterns across respondents. The researchers analyzed Question 6 using a simple 1–5 Likert-type scale (1 = not competent to 5 = most competent), tallied Questions 8–10, and then applied a simple frequency distribution.

Results

Question 1 (“When you first hear the word ‘disability’ what thoughts come to mind?”) evoked a number of responses that were divided into three themes (as shown in Table 2): (a) physical and mental, (b) lack of ability to function without assistance, and (c) “abnormal” focus.

Table 2

Responses to Question 1

Responses to Question 1
Responses to Question 1

Question 2 (“What difference do you see if any, between mental retardation and mental illness?”) determined if police officers could distinguish between intellectual disability and mental illness. There were several clear differences in the police officers' perceptions of the two disabilities, as shown in Table 3. Question 3 (“Distinguish between physical disabilities and cognitive disabilities”) probed officers' knowledge of disabilities. Because there are thousands of unique disabilities, each with different characteristics and needs, we sought to determine if the police officers differentiated between disability groups. We defined physical disabilities as an impairment of body in one or more of the following areas: muscles, bones, spinal cord, and/or visual or hearing function. Cognitive disabilities were defined as intellectual deficits, “mental retardation,” or delayed cognitive processing. The police officers' responses showed the following:

  • 44% perceived the difference correctly between physical limitation and cognition by identifying one or more of the disability characteristics, as we defined them; and

  • 56% did not distinguish between physical limitation and cognition, did not know the difference, or perceived no difference.

Table 3

Responses to Question 2: How intellectual disability differs from mental illness

Responses to Question 2: How intellectual disability differs from mental illness
Responses to Question 2: How intellectual disability differs from mental illness

Question 4 (“Distinguish between cognitive disabilities and emotional disabilities”) defined cognitive disabilities identically to Question 3 and emotional disabilities as an impairment in one's ability to interact with other persons or the environment that significantly affects a person's ability to perform daily functions in school, work, play, and/or social interactions and relationships (including mental illness, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and autism). The variance in responses indicated that the respondents had much more difficulty in distinguishing between cognitive disabilities and emotional disabilities. No clear themes emerged, with approximately 82% identifying the difference incorrectly, not knowing the difference, or perceiving no difference. The following direct quotes illustrate this variance: “Those with emotional disabilities are violent, dangerous to themselves and unpredictable.” “In my experience, one will lead to the other.” “Are emotional disabilities where the freaks cry a lot?”

For Question 5 (“What does the term autism mean to you?”), we defined autism as a severe, lifelong developmental disability that is diagnosed by abnormal functioning in social interaction, language as used in social communication, imaginative or social imitative play, and repetitive, stereotyped patterns of behavior. Responses showed the following:

  • 20% of the officers identified autism as a social deficit and/or communication deficit, and

  • 80% were not able to identify accurate characteristics of autism.

More than 35% listed simply “Rain Man” as their response.

Question 6 asked, “On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most competent) how do you perceive your ability to handle a case involving a person with a disability as a victim, witness, or perpetrator?” Results revealed that 22% of the respondents rated themselves at 5 in their perceived competence in handling cases involving a person with a disability as a victim, witness, or perpetrator. Seventy-eight percent rated themselves at 4 or lower, with 28% rating a 4.

Question 7 asked, “What if any special skills/ knowledge do you feel a police officer in your assignment should have in dealing with cases involving persons with disabilities?” Four themes emerged in the responses:

  • Training involving identification of symptoms, knowledge of signs of disability, basic knowledge of characteristics of disability;

  • Patience as a skill;

  • Resources/referral systems; and

  • Communication skills.

It was clear from the responses that the police officers gave considerable thought to this question, as evidenced by the following direct quote: “A police officer should have the skills and knowledge of disabilities so that officer does not mistake a noncompliant person for a person with a disability.”

Question 8 probed specific training received regarding persons with disabilities. Training on disability and disability issues is a critical factor in ensuring that police officers respond appropriately to crimes involving dependent adults. Responses indicated the following:

  • 48% reported that they had no training, whereas

  • 45% indicated that they had some type of training that was described as “minimal,” “basic,” and “vague.”

Question 9 (“In your experience, are persons with disabilities more often victims of crimes, or perpetrators of crimes?”) responses indicated that police officers see persons with disabilities as victims of crimes more often than as perpetrators:

  • Victim: 56%,

  • Perpetrator: 4%,

  • 50/50 split: 19%,

  • Don't know: 10%, and

  • Other: 11%.

Question 10 probed interest in receiving training involving dependent adults. The responses to Question 10 indicated strong interest in training:

  • 63% answered yes, whereas

  • 32% indicated that they would not be interested in receiving training involving dependent adults.

Police officers' responses from Question 8 were matched to their responses to Question 10. Of those in Question 8 who indicated that they had no specific training, 70% answered yes on Question 10. Of those in Question 8 who indicated that they had some specific training, 64% indicated yes on Question 10.

Conclusions

The results of this study are both encouraging and alarming. It is encouraging that most police officers properly identified key characteristics of disabilities but alarming that they had difficulty distinguishing between types of disability. It is encouraging that most respondents believed they are capable of dealing with situations involving persons with disability but alarming that the same respondents indicated a need for training. The results of this study are limited to the responses of a small selection of police officers in northern California and may not be applicable to other regions of the country. In addition, the study did not account for differences in responses between officers' rank, length of service, and ancillary training. Last, the results of the survey used in this study are limited to the analytical procedures we applied.

Police Officers Had Difficulty Distinguishing Among Disabilities

Although most police officers properly identified key characteristics of disabilities, problems arose when they were asked to distinguish between disability groups. This was particularly salient in Question 2, where most of the respondents confused intellectual disability and mental illness. Confusing mental illness and intellectual disability is a significant problem, as the responses indicated that police officers consider those with mental illness to be “unstable,” “dangerous,” and “crazy,” whereas those with intellectual disability were not seen in that light. Research suggests that most police officers perceive people with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, as more dangerous than the general population (Lamb, Weinberger, & DeCuir, 2002). It is clear that police officers need to be better able to distinguish between the two disability groups to approach situations with an appropriate set of problem-solving skills. This is particularly important for first responders. Some confusion among the disability groups may have been because the police officers' taxonomy for disabilities was different than ours, but it is clear that training in this area was warranted.

Of particular concern is the lack of police officers' knowledge of autism. Although the movie Rain Man (1998) provided many Americans an example of autism, it is insufficient to prepare police officers to respond properly to a person with autism. According to The Report on Autism to the California Legislature, California has measured a 273% increase in the number of children with autism who entered the developmental services system over the previous 10 years (California Department of Developmental Services, 1999). As these children mature, they may be a particularly vulnerable population given their lack of reciprocal social interaction skills and lack of communication. The criminal justice system as a whole would benefit from training on autism.

Police Officers Viewed Persons With Disabilities as Different From the Norm

Although responses varied, most respondents described accurate characteristics of disabilities but with an emphasis on “lack of ability” and a focus on persons with disabilities as being different from the “norm.” This overall perception of persons with disabilities as “something different” from the norm can be viewed as either negative or positive. From a societal perspective, if being different is acceptable, then the police officers' perceptions are neither disconcerting nor harmful. However, if being different from the norm is perceived as negative and to be avoided, then this perception may negatively influence how a police officer responds to a crime involving someone who is different from the norm. It is the responsibility of both law enforcement and educators to reinforce acceptability of diversity. This acceptance should transcend disability, to all forms of diversity, including race, sexual orientation, and religion.

Police Officers Perceived Themselves as Competent When They May Not Have Been, Indicating More Training Was Needed

Most police officers perceived themselves as at least moderately competent in dealing with crimes involving dependent adults. In Question 10, 78% of the police officers indicated their perceived competence to be 3 or higher. However, many also indicated in Question 7 that there was a need for training. Many of those respondents clearly detailed what that training would look like, indicating that the police officers had a clear picture of what they needed. When asked about what specific training they already had, nearly half indicated that they had received no training. However, in California, police officers have received legislatively mandated training on disabilities since 1990 (Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, 2006). Considering the extensive and broad-based training that officers receive in the police academy, it is not surprising that 48% had no recollection of that training. The inadequacy of current training was supported by the descriptions of it as vague, basic, and minimal.

Research demonstrates a disproportionate victimization profile for Americans with disabilities. As more individuals with disabilities are being mainstreamed into everyday American life, the role of the police officer should expand to better serve this population. The results of this study indicated that more training in disability is both relevant and deemed necessary by police officers themselves. Training should emphasize the following:

  • Acceptance of diversity, including disabilities;

  • Differentiation between mental illness and disabilities; and

  • Appropriate response to crimes involving persons with various types of disabilities.

Future Studies Could Help Guide Training

Future studies that serve to address specific training guidelines may present questions such as, “Given these examples of cognitive and physical disabilities, how might you respond differently to a call?” or “What do you perceive as the relationship between one's ability to communicate and his/her's intelligence?” This will give more critical information on how police officers would respond to crimes involving different types of disabilities after they understood the characteristics of the disability.

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Author notes

Authors: Scott J. Modell, PhD (modells@csus.edu), Professor, California State University, Sacramento, Special Education, 6000 J St., Sacramento, CA 95819-6073. Suzanna Mak, JD, PC-Doctor, Inc.—Headquarters, 9805 Double R Blvd., Reno, NV 89521