Police getting lessons in medicine

Classes intended to help Pa. officers distinguish illness from crime

March 25, 2001|By Mark Stroh | Mark Stroh,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BROOMALL, Pa. - It is a scenario police often face, routine but potentially dangerous. A car is traveling erratically down a suburban street. An officer pulls the car over. The driver is sweating, unresponsive and lethargic.

The driver could be drunk, or under the influence of drugs.

But also highly posible, the driver could be a diabetic suffering from insulin shock. Making sure that police are aware of the possibility is the point of a class on recognizing special needs being taught to municipal police officers statewide.

The class was developed by the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission, a state agency. It aims to make police more aware of conditions and illnesses, such as diabetes, that can cause behavior easily mistaken for criminal activity.

"I think this is an excellent subject for them," said Lt. William Fitzpatrick, of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Delaware County District Attorney's Office.

He has taught commission classes for 12 years. "This is beneficial to the cops and the community," he said.

21,000 participants

Each year, about 21,000 municipal police officers must attend mandatory training seminars.

Some are the same each year, such as an update on case law affecting policing.

Others, like this year's special- needs class, are developed as the need arises in police departments statewide.

Fitzpatrick, flanked by a television, VCR and overhead projector, taught the seminar to 41 area police officers recently at Delaware County Community College. Closely following a 76-page booklet prepared by the commission and disability advocates and handed out to each officer, Fitzpatrick's class was a fast-moving mixture of fact, testimony, policing tips and pop culture.

"Many signs of impairment are the same as those of people attempting to commit a crime," he said.

Video clips

The class included videos of people with Tourette's syndrome and different kinds of epilepsy, showing the officers what kinds of behavior to be aware of.

A brief clip from the movie "Rain Man," starring Dustin Hoffman, lightly made a simple point: Autistic people do not respond well to shouted commands or to being dragged, two things police might find cause to do in their jobs.

Several factors determine the annual course selection, said Robert Nardi, commission administrative officer.

There is legislation pending in the General Assembly to make special-needs training mandatory for police. Recent incidents, and subsequent lawsuits and court decisions, also made such training a priority, Nardi said.

And advocacy groups have been "strongly moving forward to make the point that this type of training was important," Nardi said.

Their contributions were instrumental in creating the curriculum. Experts on mental illness, retardation, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, Tourette's syndrome, deafness and autism were all consulted.

"I think it's a great tool of sensitivity training, whether or not they ever encounter people with these disabilities," said Jeannette K. Chelius, director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Mary Lou Reaver, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Tourette Syndrome Association Inc., called her experience developing the class "100 percent positive."

Despite a little grumbling about having to spend half a day inside, officers agreed on the class's value.

"It's good information to have. You never know when you're going to come across something like that," said Stephen Wassell, an officer in Westtown-East Goshen.

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