Home Blog Interacting with Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: What Law Enforcement Needs to Know

Interacting with Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: What Law Enforcement Needs to Know

December 08, 2021
Police officer interviewing young woman

Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work alumni Rachel A. Minkoff, PhD, LMSW and Carlos E. Gerena, PhD, LMSW, recently had an article published in Police Chief Magazine. The article, “Interacting with Individuals Who Have Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” breaks down the challenges justice-involved individuals with disabilities face when interacting with law enforcement and the criminal justice system at large.

Statistics on Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Minkoff and Gerena point to the disparity of the amount of people with disabilities in the general population, which comes in at five percent, versus the prison populations, which comes in at 30 percent, showing that law enforcement and other individuals working in the justice system do need to be aware of the challenges that this population faces. The 2020 U.S. census also points to the need for better understanding of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with 1.2 million adults falling into this category, and 944,000 adults reporting other developmental disabilities.

With these statistics in mind, the authors touch on the challenges that these individuals face, and suggest solutions for law enforcement to employ for better outcomes when individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities become involved with the justice system.

Challenges Facing These Individuals and What Law Enforcement Can Do to Help

The authors outline various challenges in the article in hopes of helping law enforcement better identify when they come across an individual with an intellectual or developmental disability. Minkoff and Gerena do state that it can be challenging to make quick determinations in the field, but by having a better understanding of these individuals, better outcomes can be achieved.


Communication can be a big hurdle. The authors point to echolalia—when a person repeats what has been said to them—as a lesser known communication issue. They suggest that when an officer comes across echolalia or is not entirely sure, they should give the individual time to process the questions, attempt to repeat the question if needed, and reach out for an advocate if possible.

Minkoff and Gerena also note that possessing delays can be a major cause of communication issues. While it may be difficult for an officer to know for sure if a person is experiencing a cognitive delay, they advise that officers wait up to 15 seconds before repeating a question or moving on, if it is safe for them to do so.

Officers should also consider the types of questions they are answering in an interrogation or interview, as individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities may struggle to answer open ended questions. It is especially worth nothing that these individuals may give the answers that they believe the investigator or interviewer wants to hear.

Sensory Needs

Sensory issues present challenges for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, as they can be overstimulated by sounds, touch, smells, tastes, and sights. Setting up the individual for success by speaking to them in a quiet room if loud sounds are an issue is one example. Some individuals are sensitive to light, while others may crave sunlight. Some may want touch, while others may become defensive when touched, which can present as if they are resisting arrest when they are dealing with law enforcement.

Dimming the lights in an interrogation room, giving the person a quiet room to allow them to self-regulate, and understanding that a touch may be causing discomfort are all examples of the need for awareness. Small tweaks to meet sensory needs can lead to better interactions.

Physical Aggression

Individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities are at a greater risk of reacting physically in self-defence. It is important for officers to know that when an individual with disabilities reacts physically, they are not doing so with malicious intent.

Minkoff and Gerena suggest that, if it is safe to do so, officers should take a step back before approaching in an attempt to calm the individual down. They also suggest reaching out to trained professionals to run emotional and medical intervention, rather than physical intervention.

Structure and Routine

Changes to structure and routine can cause distress in individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Although no two people are the same, officers in general can help by explaining what he or she is doing, letting the individual know how long whatever they are doing will take, and explaining the steps of what is coming next.

Minkoff and Gerena suggest a token board as a helpful tool. A token board usually involves check marks for positive behavior, resulting in a reward once the already agreed-upon number of check marks are reached. Drawing boxes for the number of check marks and checking off each box when a task is completed allows the individual to visually track their progress.

The Importance of Further Training

These are just some of the suggestions that Minkoff and Gerena make in this article. They urge those with law enforcement and the justice system to seek additional training in this area. The authors note that officer safety is of the utmost importance, but not that they also need to remember that role of empathy in policing, and how it plays a key role in building trust with the community.

The full article can be found here, but note that an account is required to view the entire piece.

About the Authors

Minkoff is an experienced social worker and case worker with a background working in non-profit organizations. She is skilled in program development and management, and works with individuals with developmental disabilities. Her MSW from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work was focused on child welfare. Her PhD, also from Wurzweiler, is focused on policies and practices related to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Gerena is a mental health therapist whose research interests include issues within the gay Latino community, health disparities among gay men of color, and clinical social work. Genera is an adjunct professor at Yeshiva University, teaching courses on cultural diversity and human behavior and social environment. He earned his MSW from Fordham University with a specialization in childhood and adolescent trauma. He earned his PhD in Social Work from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. His doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Conflict between Culture and Sexuality: A Qualitative Study of the Coming Out Experience of Latino Gay Men.”

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