People with special needs and police: bridging the gap

Alei Siach residents meet a soldier in Jerusalem. SOURCE: Alei Siach

When I learned of Saturday’s incident in which Iyad Al-Halak, a young man with special needs was shot in Jerusalem by police, I felt as though I had lost someone in my family. Al-Halak, who was autistic, did not respond to officers’ commands to stop when they believed he had a weapon. Instead he fled from officers, who interpreted his behavior as that of a terrorist.

The tragedy hits particularly close to home for me. As the father of two children with special needs, this event is my worst nightmare, and I know that many other parents of special needs children feel similarly.

While some have rushed to politicize the tragedy, it’s crucial that we do not lose sight of the underlying issue present in this case. Sadly, police shootings of people with special needs are not an unusual occurrence and we must investigate how we can better educate Israeli police and security forces to prevent such tragedies from happening again in the future.

Creating connections

Most police officers have never spent time with people who have intellectual disabilities. And officers, especially those serving in Jerusalem, have only a split second to decide whether or not a person poses a threat.

Officers must be able to swiftly recognize when a person’s unusual behavior, or even them ignoring officers’ commands, stems from an intellectual disability, a misunderstanding, rather than a criminal motivation.

This can only happen through close familiarity with special needs people and behaviors, and this experience is best gained through repeated interactions. Many people with special needs are big fans of police officers and view the opportunity to meet and speak with an officer as a treat. A program that brings special needs people to a police station for weekly visits would make a world of difference.

Education

Israeli police officers undergo very little training about interacting with people who have intellectual disabilities.

We need to educate police officers about behaviors frequently present in people with special needs. A basic overview about various intellectual disabilities and how they manifest would greatly benefit officers. Ideally, officers would have the knowledge needed to distinguish between someone who is non-verbal and someone who is ignoring a command.

Police officers should also be deeply familiar with the area they patrol. The station’s chief should inform all incoming officers about special needs schools or community centers in their district, clearly explaining that officers should expect to come across people with special needs in those areas.

This would establish the possibility in an officer’s mind that he may encounter someone with special needs – a scenario that he might not have considered on his own.

Ongoing initiatives

Police officers are an important part of our communities, and so are people who are living with special needs. I would love to see organic interactions between officers and special needs people on a regular basis, outside of the confines of high-pressure situations.

A one-time lecture isn’t enough to bridge the gap between special needs people and police officers. The most important factor to mitigate the risk of such police shootings in the future lies squarely in both special needs people and police embracing ongoing initiatives.

Police stations should commit to hosting people with special needs for regular visits, as well as regularly consult with heads of local institutions serving people with special needs about best practices. Officers should undergo training courses preparing them on how to recognize and speak with people who have special needs. People with intellectual disabilities must also be educated about police officers and how to behave if one is approached by an officer.

BeEzrat Hashem, the loss of Iyad Al-Halak can lead us to deeper understanding between the police and people with special needs.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the Director and Founder of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.
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