Registries of disabled people debated in police reform talks
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Victoria Mitchell wishes police would have had the full picture of her son’s struggles with mental illness and reacted differently before an officer shot and killed him last year in Ansonia, Connecticut.
Her son, Michael Gregory, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide several times. He was in crisis when he was shot on Jan. 2, 2020, while charging officers with a knife, after telling them they were going to have to shoot him.
Mitchell, a nurse who cares for people with mental illness, supports some parts of a proposed statewide law enforcement registry of people with disabilities including mental illness. The idea is being studied by the state’s Police Transparency & Accountability Task Force as a way to alert officers about someone’s disability and avoid deadly use of force.
“Maybe had something like that had been available, they would have proceeded differently — knowing that he’s not in his right mind,” she said. “They could have called someone in to de-escalate the situation.”
The Connecticut proposal would be a major expansion of voluntary registry programs already in place at a large number of police departments across the country, which are primarily aimed at helping officers find people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia who go missing and get them back home.
A smaller number of departments have added people with autism and bipolar disorder in efforts to improve their interactions with people with developmental and mental health disabilities, in response to public outcries about shootings by police.
Since 2015, nearly a quarter of the nearly 6,000 fatal shootings by police in the U.S. have involved mentally ill people, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings.
Advocates for disabled people, however, said there are significant problems with the registries including further stigmatizing people with disabilities and privacy concerns.
Registries are a “terrible idea,” partly because of a flawed assumption that they will result in better outcomes in police encounters, said Kathleen Flaherty, executive director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project, which provides legal services to low-income people with psychiatric disabilities.
“I think it could just as easily be that knowing they are dealing with somebody with X,Y,Z diagnosis, because of the bias and stigmatized views that people have of people with certain diagnoses, you may just be setting things up for failure, unintended but that could be what happens,” she said.
Advocates for the disabled also have concerns about the government collecting information about people’s disabilities and how long the information would be stored.
After the registry was brought up by Connecticut’s police accountability task force, similar concerns emerged and the panel recently decided to study the issue more before deciding whether to formally recommend it to state lawmakers.
“It’s a difficult balancing act,” said Jonathan Slifka, chairperson of the task force’s subcommittee on improving police interactions with the disability community. “There is an inherent hesitation on behalf of people within the disability community to self-identify because of the potential for stigma, bias, anything else.”
Slifka and Flaherty are members of the disability community.
Names on Connecticut’s registry would be entered voluntarily by people who want to be on the registry, or possibly by their families.
Registries are one of many ideas being considered around the country to improve police interactions with disabled and mentally ill people. Others include sending mental health experts on calls with police, or instead of police, and providing more crisis intervention and de-escalation training to officers.
Many police officials believe registries help officers when encountering people with mental illness and other disabilities.
In Santa Clarita, California, the town and the local station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office created a registry in 2004 to improve how they interact with the disability community, after law enforcement officers arrested two teenagers with autism in different incidents within the same week but were unaware of their disabilities.
While Santa Clarita’s registry has been focused in recent years on helping find people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and autism who get lost and return them home, it also is open to people with bipolar disorder. It includes a couple hundred people and has been a valuable tool for the community, said Kathleen Secchi, a coordinator at the local Family Focus Resource Center office, one of many community partners in the registry.
Police in Westport, Connecticut, created a voluntary registry for people with any disability or mental illness in 2018. It allows people with disabilities, or their relatives, to sign up for the list. About 20 people are now on the registry in the town of about 28,000 people, police Lt. David Wolf said.
“We do see people and deal with people in crises pretty regularly, so it’s just really important for us to be prepared, have good strategies in place and actually have great resources we can reach out to, which we do,” Wolf said.
Mitchell, the Connecticut mother whose son was shot by police, said at the very least, police should record in their own computer systems when they encounter people with mental illness and other disabilities and make that information available to officers during calls.
About six weeks before he was shot, Ansonia police arrested Gregory for violating a protective order obtained by his girlfriend, despite his girlfriend and Mitchell pleading with officers to take him to a psychiatric hospital instead.
Mitchell said she believes police knew, or should have known, about that arrest when they responded to the call that led to the shooting by Officer Brendon Nelson, whom a prosecutor found justified in the shooting. Nelson was among the officers that arrested Gregory six weeks earlier.
Ansonia police declined to comment on the shooting but said officers receive training on de-escalation and how to interact with mentally ill people.
“If the police get a call and are involved in a situation with someone and it’s a mental health crisis or issue, why can’t they put it in their logs, in their records?” Mitchell said. “Had he been told, `You’re not going to go to jail, we’re just going to take you to the hospital to get checked out,’ maybe he would have put the knife down.”