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Police learn to handle challenging subjects

Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
Facilitator Crandall Heard explains intricacies of mental disabilities.

Photo by Kathy Jefcoats Facilitator Crandall Heard explains intricacies of mental disabilities.

By Kathy Jefcoats

kjefcoats@news-daily.com

FOREST PARK — Yvette Pollard urged a room full of police officers to take an extra few minutes to find out if a person causing trouble has issues that may explain the bad behavior.

Pollard has reason to be concerned. She is the mother of four children — two of whom have autism.

“Situations are not clear-cut,” said Pollard. “Pay attention to some details. You can’t pepper them with questions. Take those extra few minutes to see what information you can pull from these individuals.”

Pollard addressed the officers during specialized training at Forest Park Police Department Wednesday. All About Developmental Disabilities facilitator Crandall Heard led the discussion but invited Pollard to share her children’s unique disabilities so officers could gain perspective.

Officers learned distinctions among intellectual disabilities including autism, behavior disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome, learning disabilities, epilepsy and cerebral palsy. They also learned there is a difference between those disabilities and mental illnesses.

“Mental illness has nothing to do with IQ,” said Heard. “The illnesses can be controlled with medications and people may recover completely. Mental illness can occur at any age and a person can go back and forth between having an illness and not having an illness.”

The topic also sparked a discussion about convicted killer Warren Lee Hill Jr., who was due to be executed the night before the class. Hill got a stay from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals based partly on charges from his attorneys that he is mentally handicapped. Georgia law prohibits the death penalty when the defendant is mentally handicapped.

However, Hill served in the U.S. Navy before killing his 18-year-old girlfriend and later his cellmate. Heard said that instead of military service proving that Hill was not mentally handicapped, it supported his attorneys’ arguments.

“In the military, he was asked to do one thing at a time, never multiple things at one time,” he said. “He could handle one thing at a time. Also, his former teachers testified that they couldn’t teach him, they just passed him along.”

However, Heard noted that having mental disabilities doesn’t absolve a person of guilt or punishment.

“You can’t just not enforce the law,” he said. “But you can take a couple extra steps so when the case gets to court, all the information will be there. The court can make a better decision on how to dispose of the case. Whatever happens needs to happen at the very beginning.”

Forest Park police Sgt. T. Wray Cochran also urged officers to use discretion when necessary.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting with your supervisor at the jail and telling him you had to arrest someone but you think he has a disability,” said Cochran. “If you can let someone walk away who’s just being a little loud in public, that’s fine, but they don’t get exceptions just because they have a mental illness. You aren’t going to be held liable for arresting someone for committing a crime but most times you do have discretion.”

Jonesboro police Chief Franklin Allen attended the class with Lt. Tony Lumpkin. Allen said his goal is to have his department trained by December.

“I think this is very crucial training for our department, to enable our officers to have more effective communication and work out problems and issues with these individuals who have learning disabilities, mental illness and addictions,” said Allen. “Every officer will go through this block of instruction.”