Case Study: Police, complaint calls, and people with disabilities

When officers approach a suspect do they think about what possible disabilities that  person  might have, or do they consider  it only after they take him into custody? What special difficulties can arise?

The following is a case study conducted by The Chronicle based on an actual incident on October 25, 2015 in the town of Fair Haven. We have chosen it to illustrate the difficulties faced by law enforcement when confronted with a suspect who might have a disability or suffer from mental illness.

According to Kathleen Phalen-Toaselli’s article Mental Illness: More Police Learning to De-escalate, published by Times Argus on October 25, 2015,  a 19 year old boy name Jamie Mill was  arrested at the Poultney  High School football game for assault.

Karen Marino, Mill’s mother explained the incident:  “A boy that used to date his [Jamie’s] girlfriend, gave her a hug and Jamie felt that she was in danger and he lashed out at the boy.” Adding, “That he thought the other boy was taunting him.”

The first officer to respond was  Cpl. Scott J. Alkinburgh of the Fair Haven Police Department.   He found Mill crying and shaking uncontrollably,  repeating, “please don’t send me to jail.” Unsure of how to handle the situation, Alkinburgh called for backup. He did not know that Jamie is Autistic and has Tourette’s syndrome.

Jamie’s mother says she was never called.

The situation could have turned ugly, but it happened that Sgt. Dale Keber was the officer responding to Cpl. Alkinburgh’s call for backup.  When reached by The Chronicle he elaborated on the night’s events: “When I arrived at the school and spoke to the School Resource Officer (SRO) about the matter, I didn’t know that Jamie was accused of assaulting a boy.”

Once Sgt. Keber was given the name, “I immediately knew who he was. One thing people do not know is I am also the Constable and Truancy Officer for the Town of Poultney where Jamie use to attend high school.  Another thing people do not know is one of my relatives was Jamie’s teacher and my wife works at the school as well. As a result I had a lot of previous interaction with Jamie over the course of his entire time at Poultney High School.”

Keber’s personal knowledge of Mill allowed him to handle the situation more delicately than has often been the case for offenders with disabilities.

Sgt. Keber recalls that Jamie was 50 feet away, crying. He yelled over to Jamie:  “My name is Sgt. Dale Keber, will you come over by me?”

Jamie came over,  continuing to cry and repeating, “Am I going to go to jail?”

Sgt. Keber reassured him that he wasn’t going to jail. He told Jamie, “You are going to get a piece of paper and you will be going home tonight.” He claims he did everything he could to calm Jamie down, by engaging him in conversation:

“Jamie do you trust me?” Sgt. Keber asked

He said “I do.”

“I want you to repeat to yourself that you are not going to go to jail.” Sgt. Keber made him repeat it.

According to Sgt. Keber, he went from uncontrollable to a much calmer person and the Jamie I knew from school.

Sgt. Keber then told him, “I will be taking you to my station to do the paperwork and then you will be going home.”

Jamie sat in the front seat in Sgt. Keber’s  car and he was never handcuffed.

Sgt. Keber did fingerprinted Jamie while waiting for his parents. Sgt. Keber assured that this isn’t Jamie’s first time being fingerprinted as it was done previously for employment at Poultney High School. He told Jamie, “Fingerprinting would be like when I did it for your job at the high school.”

Once his parents arrived at the station,  Sgt. Keber explained to them what had happened at the high school football game, the citation Jamie would be getting and when his court date would be.  Keber also pointed out to them that the court is not going to look to punish Jamie in any way, that they are only going to hold him accountable for his actions, but he probably would get diversion. Sgt. Keber believed that: “The courts would also take into consideration his present state of mind along with the other issues that Jamie was facing outside of tonight’s incident.”

Finally, Sgt. Keber told them, “I did not handcuff him as I knew this would be more traumatic for him.”

Jamie was only there as long as it took to process him and he was released.

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In the next section: what are the official policies for handling situations?