By Taylor Knopf

After police shot and killed a Charlotte man who was deaf last year, some North Carolina lawmakers want to take a closer look at law enforcement mental health and disability training.

House Bill 591 would direct the state Departments of Justice and Public Safety to study different types of training available for officers to improve their traffic stop interactions with individuals with disabilities. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Charles Graham (D-Lumberton), passed through the House Health committee last week.

head shot
Rep. Charles Graham (R-Lumberton)

Graham worked with students with special needs in Robeson County for 31 years and said many of his students went on to receive a driver’s license. He cited oppositional defiance disorder, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder as just a few of the issues that affect a person’s ability to interact with a police officer.

“Just because you become a certain age to have a driver’s license doesn’t mean that diagnosis disappears,” he said. “A person always carries that diagnosis.”

“Not all drivers have normal functional and cognitive abilities,” Graham said. “Although they have a driver’s license — and they are entitled to have the driver’s license — they don’t have what we consider to be normal behavioral interactions.”

That phenomenon was in evidence during another incident in Charlotte last year, where a man acting erratically was shot and killed by police; it was later discovered that he had a traumatic brain injury.

demonstration of handling a drunk, combative man
Raleigh CIT officer Wendy Clark and counselor Benny Langdon demonstrate how to handle an intoxicated, combative man during the Wake County CIT training in 2013. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

During last week’s committee meeting, Rep. Cynthia Ball (D-Raleigh) spoke in support of Graham’s bill, adding that she sponsored legislation that would create a designation on driver’s licenses to identify deaf and hearing impaired drivers. House Bill 84 has already passed the House and is moving through the Senate.

Rep. Jay Adams (R-Hickory) asked if lawmakers should be studying “at what point a person is not eligible for a driver’s license […] Are there people out there who are licensed to drive that are virtually going to be impossible to deal with?”

Graham said that is not within the scope of this study bill. Its goal is to determine whether law enforcement needs a certain level of mental health and disability training, and if so, what should that be.

“I don’t think we can put a label on a person and say, ‘because you have PTSD, you’re not eligible for a driver’s license,'” Graham said. “I don’t want to imply that’s what this study is about.”

“We have people that go into law enforcement with a high school diploma,” he added. “They have no knowledge of what PTSD is. The have no knowledge of what some of these diagnosis might carry.”

All law enforcement officers have a mental health awareness course during basic training. About 45 percent go through additional Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), a more robust course available across the state for any interested officers. It teaches them skills such as how to de-escalate a situation.

By the end of last year, 9,536 North Carolina law enforcement officers completed the CIT program out of about 21,000 full-time officers, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

headshot of Boswell
Rep. Beverly Boswell (R-Kill Devil Hills)

The North Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness helps revise the curriculum for the CIT program every few years. NAMI NC Executive Director Jack Register said his organization always supports study legislation like House Bill 591, especially because CIT is the only real training in the state. So exploring options is welcome.

Rep. Beverly Boswell (R- Kill Devil Hills) was the only lawmaker in the committee to vote against the bill on Tuesday.

“When a police officer pulls you over, he asks that you follow simple commands,” Boswell said. “So is that the issue? Or are we going to make the police officers a medical provider? Because that’s a very thin line.

“All drivers have to obey the same rules and regulations” she added. “So if they are unable to follow the commands of a police officer how can they have a valid driver’s license?”

Matthew Herr, policy analyst with Disability Rights, spoke in support of the bill. He said when it comes to someone with autism, for example, “they may be able to follow commands but it may take them longer, or they may have some informational processing limitations that slows down their reaction.”

He pointed out that there is already a medical review process in place at the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles.

But Herr noted there is not a consensus among disability advocates about how law enforcement should approach these individuals, which is why he thinks a study is so needed.

“When we say people with disabilities, it’s deceptively complex term,” he said. “The best practices for dealing with a person with autism may be different than the best practices for dealing with a person with severe anxiety.”

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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...