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Police Response to People with Mental Retardation: Trainers Guide

NCJ Number
Date Published
31 pages

This document is intended to aid law enforcement agencies in their efforts to improve the police response to people with disabilities.


This curriculum is aimed at improving services to citizens with mental retardation. Many of these suggestions for a proper police response may also apply to the 72 million Americans that are functionally illiterate, and to those people that have difficulty understanding complex social situations. The majority of people with mental retardation do not engage in criminal activity. Among those that do, some may understand the consequences of their illegal activity, while others may not. Police experience has shown that individuals with mental retardation may have a poor ability to assess situations and people that may make them vulnerable to being used by lawbreakers as foils, runners, or couriers. They may also make errors in judgment on their own that lead them to break the law. Common interactions between police and people with mental retardation include lost or runaway person, suspicious person, victim, citizen complaints, and criminal offenders. Officers may misinterpret situations because the learned coping skills used by people with mental retardation can make it difficult to understand the situation and respond effectively. There are several suggestions designed to improve interaction between law enforcement officers and people that have mental retardation. One tip is to give these people the same respect as others. Treat adults as adults, not as children. Arrange to question the person in a calm setting, free of distractions. Speak directly to the person. Use simple, concrete, and concise language. Use the person’s name often. Break complicated series of instructions or information into smaller parts. Use open-ended questions that require more than just a yes or no. For offenders and suspects with mental retardation, the officer should seek alternatives to traditional arrest and incarceration. An officer that takes the person into custody should make every effort to notify parents, legal guardians, or other appropriate support people. In explaining the suspect’s rights, the officer should ask the suspect to explain each phrase of the warnings in his or her own words. 5 appendices

Date Published: January 1, 1998