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Citizens with mental health issues and traffic stops: communication impediment with the police

On Behalf of | Apr 4, 2019 | Firm News

Lets face it: cops have a lot to deal with when out on the streets.  Deciding whether someone is drunk, high or mentally ill can be difficult out on the streets.  Mental illness is not always obvious and may be mistaken for other conditions.  For instance a police officer may interpret a person with autism to be suspicious because of the following observations: (1) the person lacks or has too much eye contact, (2) no expression or bland behavior (3) unusual speaking patterns including but not limited to direct, curt short answers (4) physical display of coping mechanisms such as repetitive body movements, crying, holding ears, yelling, singing or going into a fetal position.  Additional observations could be slower to respond and may freeze when asked many questions and fine and gross motor skills are impacted, which affects the ability to multitask, such as reaching for a driver’s license, writing skills when signing a ticket and talking, and clumsiness when walking.

Further various sensory issues may be a problem in a police encounter with a mentally ill person: bright flashing lights on a squad car and loud sounds are often painful and/or distractible, cause them to pause to respond, shiny badges and flashlights can be a painful distraction, Touch sensitivities means holding their arm or grabbing abruptly causes pain, Smells such as cologne/perfume or strong tobacco may cause sensory overload and they shut down.

That is why Texas trooper recruits are being trained specifically for understanding the autistic traits they may encounter such as delayed response, coping mechanisms and nervous ticks during a typical pull-over. This is a result of Texas  Transportation  Code  §521.125 (“The Samuel Allen Law”) allows  the  Texas  Department  of  Public  Safety  to  include on the back of an individual’s driver license or identification card any health condition that may impede the individual’s communication with a peace officer.  On the back of the license is printed “RESTRICTIONS: Communication Impediment”  The Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities (GCPD) has worked alongside Aspergers101 and the Texas Department of Public Safety to include the “communication impediment” phrase on licenses of drivers who qualify.

The program was endorsed by Dr. Temple Grandin, who is a professor and advocate for people on the autism spectrum, such as herself.  According to Dr. Temple Grandin: “I want to emphasize that Asperger’s and Autism are not separate conditions. Asperger’s is just the milder end of the continuum. There’s no black and white dividing line between a mild case of autism and geek and nerd. They are the same thing. It is a continuum of traits. The mind can either develop to be more thinking and cognitive or it can be developed to be more social. There’s a point where it just merges into part of your personality.”

Citizens utilizing this option are able to inform law enforcement of the diagnosis of: AutismAsperger SyndromeMild intellectual disabilityDeafness, Speech & languages disorders, Expressive Language Disorder, Down Syndrome, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Deafness, Brain Injury or Parkinson’s Disease. and other communication challenges.  “Learning to drive can be a very scary concept, and especially more so if you have high-functioning autism or Aspergers,” said Samuel Allen, the son of Aspergers101 founder Jennifer Allen. “I feel protected knowing that ‘communication impediment’ is printed on my driver’s license.”

The health condition must be evidenced by this signed statement from a licensed physician. By providing this information, the phrase “communication impediment” will be printed on the reverse side of the driver license or identification card.  Unfortunately, while the form applying for this designation is a confidential driver record, apparently it has been suggested that the medical information provided under this program is not protected and is subject to release under the Public Information Act.

So what is an effective way for police to talk with a mentally ill person during a traffic stop:
Be factual. Tell them why you pulled them over. Don’t ask them.
Allow time for them to respond (approximately 20 seconds per question).
Reassure them they are not going to jail as this is the first thing they picture when pulled over.
Talk in medium-level tones as loud, sudden sounds can scare and cause a painful delay in response.
State, step by step, what your intentions are and what you expect from them during the stop. Never assume they know what is expected of them.
Do not take a lack of eye contact, the changing of subjects, or answers that are vague, evasive, or blunt as evidence of guilt.
Let them know when the interaction is over, and they are free to drive off.