Getting To Know Each Other
By Colin Stevens
It was a question worth asking, and this student wasn’t holding back. He was chatting with Corporal Randy Green, a Maryland-National Capital Park Police officer since 2006, and the question seemed most important.
“What happens if you handcuff me and I can’t use my hands to speak,” the student asked through his deaf interpreter.
Green had the perfect response. “I just told him, politely, ‘Well, if you don’t disobey the law, you won’t have to be handcuffed.’ “Everyone started laughing. He came up and gave me a high-five. But he asked some questions to see if we have anything in place, and that’s the reason why this program is a big hit.”
That exchange came at one of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning’s (M-NCPPC) three meet-and-greets with law enforcement and first responders, most recently held in October 2015 at the Park Police’s Enterprise Substation in Mitchellville, Md. This event was a collaborative effort to connect those who protect our community with the disability community.
Inspired By Tragedy
One tragic incident points out the need for this event. In January 2013, Ethan Saylor, of New Market, was spending his afternoon at a Frederick movie theater watching Zero Dark Thirty, which he liked so much that he wanted to see it again immediately.
Saylor, who had Down syndrome, was asked to pay the $12 fee for re-entry or leave. He wouldn’t leave, prompting the theater staff to call the off-duty deputies who were working security. The situation became physical as security tried to remove Saylor, who didn’t like to be touched. After being handcuffed and taken to the ground, Saylor became quiet and stopped moving. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital soon after.
Saylor’s death at 26 years old became a national story, especially within the disability community. Sandy Kellstrom, a therapeutic-recreation coordinator for M-NCPPC’s Department of Parks and Recreation in Prince George’s County, knew something needed to change.
Putting The Plan Into Action
Kellstrom and two of her close friends within the disability community—Liz Burley, a transition specialist for Prince George’s County Public Schools Department of Special Education, and Melonee Clark, an outreach program administrator for Arc Prince George’s County—came up with the idea of the meet-and-greet event.
They envisioned it as a way for people in the disability community to meet police officers and first responders in a controlled environment, and also as a chance for officers and responders to gain a better understanding of people with disabilities.
“Before this, we had nothing,” Clark says. “Even though it’s a festive event, it’s also an educational event. If an officer gets training—book training—that can’t take the place of actually talking to someone who has a disability, or someone who may use technology or sign language to communicate. These are experiences that officers or first responders need to know. So I think this is a win-win for the county.”
Cast A Wide Net
Kellstrom says that setting up a committee with representatives from different agencies was the key to her planning. In addition to Burley and Clark, who represented local schools and disability agencies, Kellstrom found a local law-enforcement representative in Green.
Kellstrom sought to cast a wide net. For the Prince George’s County event, she reached out to park, county, state and federal police, the sheriff’s department, and various fire, rescue, and emergency-preparedness groups.
Kellstrom says it’s better to invite a number of law enforcement professionals from different areas so that other responsibilities are handled. So, in case of an emergency, some officers or responders may be on call and have to leave unexpectedly. In one case, the canine unit was unable to participate because it had to work late the previous evening.
Prepare Everyone Prior To The Event
In the week leading up to the event, Kellstrom says the students’ curriculum focused on preparing questions.
Students then learn that police officers and first responders may wear different uniforms depending on the unit, but they are all there to enforce the same laws and protect people.
Kellstrom also notes an important similarity between first responders, law enforcement, and the disability community—both use animals for help.
“The great thing about the horses and the canine unit is it’s able to bridge the gap to share with the disability community that these are working animals, just like service animals,” Kellstrom says. “I love bridging that gap with them. Your service dog has a name, and the horses and the canine unite dogs have names, too. You shouldn’t just reach out to touch the working horse without asking the officer first.”
Kellstrom would also like to see more education for the law enforcement officers and first responders prior to the event. Most are familiar with the Maryland Public Safety Visual Language Assistant, a point-to-identify picture booklet that they are given to help non-verbal people communicate with them. But other than the booklet, public safety enforcers may not have much additional knowledge about how to interact with the disability community.
“I expect there to be some difficulty with the communication. That’s what this program’s about,” Kellstrom says. “But we know we need to prepare people better and give them better training prior to the event.”
Another Successful Event
The focus of the event was to reach the transition age range of 18- to 21-year-olds. The first three events drew more than 750 participants, and had several different stations which groups would rotate through. Highlights included meeting the canine unit, going into and hearing an ambulance, meeting park police’s mounted-unit horses, and seeing a helicopter.
“Getting kids not to fear sirens … some students get very animated or scream or have cases where they’re frightened by loud noises and bright lights,” Burley says. “So this opportunity shows them they don’t need to be afraid.”
With 13 years of policing, Cpl. Green already had had encounters with members of the disability community prior to attending his first meet-and-greet.
He recalls a time years ago when a deaf person was walking in a median on Landover Road. He knew immediately to get out a pen and notepad so the two could communicate.
Green knows this event is important, especially for those new to the job, and hopes it can prevent future situations like Saylor’s.
“Having that new officer in law enforcement, bringing them to meet people with disabilities … they get to see things in a different light,” Green says.
Colin Stevens is a Media Relations Specialist in the Public Affairs and Marketing Division of the Department of Parks and Recreation, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning. Reach him at Colin.Stevens@MNCPPC.onmicrosoft.com.