The Suffolk County Police Department is launching a new sensitivity training program designed to equip officers to deal with people with disabilities such as autism in order to de-escalate interactions, police announced Wednesday.
The new training — expanded from two hours to eight hours — teaches officers to recognize 12 different disorders that may impact a person’s ability to respond to officers’ commands, Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said Wednesday. The curriculum includes learning disabilities, visual and hearing impairment, epilepsy, seizures and dementia.
“Oftentimes, someone who has a disability, their actions can be misperceived by officers and this training program gets to the core of that,” said Sini. The program will be rolled out Monday when a new class of 115 recruits enters the police academy, he said.
The move comes three years after Suffolk police used a stun gun on a disabled man at a Middle Island group home who died as a result, and as law enforcement training has come under scrutiny nationally after a series of fatal shootings of black men.
Vickie Lee Iregbulem attended Sini’s announcement at police headquarters in Yaphank with her son Bentley Iregbulem, 21, a recent graduate of Manor Plains High School in Huntington.
She said she kept a close eye on her son growing up, but as he is now, as she put it, “out in the world” looking for a job as a stocker or cashier, her concern grew that because he has autism and is black, his interactions with police officers could be misunderstood.
“I have a child who has autism but is also African-American,” said Iregbulem, 57, of Amityville. “Some people might not understand he has a disability. They may see his color first and not take the time to understand he has a disability.”
Iregbulem recently wrote a letter to county officials, including the legislature’s Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) about the issue and she said she was surprised when she got a response and an invitation to meet Sini, who was already working on implementing a policy.
“I was afraid if he encountered a police officer for whatever reason, for whatever situation, his reaction is to freeze and not quite understand,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone to jump to a conclusion and not understand he has a special need.”
Suffolk County is the first jurisdiction in the state — and the country — to embed the policy to its training at its police academy, officials said. The program, called the First Responders Disability Awareness Training, was created by Dave Whalen, the project director at Niagara University in western New York.
Whalen said the training is poised to be rolled out statewide and is funded through a grant with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Sini also urged residents to participate in the department’s Silver Alert program, which registers people with certain mental and physical disabilities, in the case they go missing or need assistance. Each person gets a bracelet with an ID number.