Helping police and the handicapped Wheelchair user trains officers

March 28, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

To many police officers, Dan Kober seems harmless enough -- a pudgy, middle-aged guy in a motorized wheelchair who has limited use of his left arm. But with the flick of his wheelchair joystick, he can deliver a powerful kicking blow to the knees and a very important lesson: Never underestimate the disabled.

"A wheelchair can be a weapon," said Kober, 51. "You perceived me to be disabled and that I can't hurt you, but I can jump the leg rests up and push an officer down."

Kober heads advisory committees on people with disabilities in both the county and Annapolis, and he has taught police in those jurisdictions to protect the disabled and to protect themselves if they should have to arrest a person in a wheelchair.

County police estimate those arrests happen only about three times a year, but they have been troublesome. Prisoner transport vans are not equipped with wheelchair lifts, and officers don't like the idea of handcuffing a disabled person. They also fear being sued, officials say.

"It's socially unpopular," said police academy Sgt. Dennis O'Toole.

When Kober asked about training police to deal with the handicapped, O'Toole invited him to teach, and the results, the sergeant said, were great. Officers who took the training gave him rave reviews, and county police honored him with an award last month.

This summer, Kober plans to take his lessons to instructors of the Maryland Police Training Commission who teach officers in jurisdictions across the state.

"I'm making the best of my situation," said Kober who began using a wheelchair in 1985, seven years after what was supposed to have been corrective surgery for a neck injury debilitated his left limbs. He also has multiple sclerosis, which has partially paralyzed his right leg.

Volunteering "gives me the feeling that I'm not disabled in this chair. I can help," Kober said.

In hourlong classes that began in the fall, Kober opened the officers' eyes to the world of the disabled criminal. In a videotaped session, he showed officers how he could hide unsheathed knives in the openings of his seat cushion and a gun in a bag hung on the right side of his chair.

He discussed how to size up suspects and how to avoid injuring them. For example, he explained that when a person loses the use of an arm, it will curl up and draw closer to the body, and the longer legs are paralyzed, the further they will extend and they will cross at the ankles.

Different types of paralysis can cause additional health problems, Kober said. Quadriplegics are at risk of spinal injury if moved too much, and because they are unable to move their upper bodies, they may also have difficulty breathing; paraplegics may have a great deal of upper body strength and can be more of a risk to officers.

Kober also told police about the psychological effects of immobilizing a wheelchair.

"If you take away my mobility, you take away my freedom," Kober said. "It's not much different than locking me up in jail. It might heighten the agitation level."

But the one thing officers remembered most was when Kober demonstrated the power of his motorized wheelchair, what he called "a small car." During classes, he routinely challenged one of the largest officers to keep him from moving his wheelchair.

In the video, an officer struggled but succeeded while the wheels on the chair screeched against the carpet. In another class, an officer tried restraining him by standing in front and pushing against the chair.

"It shoved the cop straight back across the room," said Officer Sam Brown. "It wasn't even a challenge."

Since Kober began his work, county police have used four vans from the Department of Aging equipped with wheelchair lifts to transport disabled prisoners. Police have trained about 80 officers to operate them, O'Toole said.

The officers, who usually go grudgingly to their training sessions, wrote enthusiastic reviews about the Riva resident.

Kober, who divides his time between volunteering and expanding his store, Annapolis Mobility, which sells accessories for the handicapped, said training the police was part of his mission to improve life for disabled people like himself.

"I'm not an activist," he said. "I'm just someone trying to make a difference."

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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