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Behavioral Health System, Willingboro Police Partnership Leads Way to New Initiative

By rlsmetro on

SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. and the Willingboro Police Department have joined forces on an initiative to increase awareness and provide training for law enforcement on intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).

Officials said recent months, the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed several vulnerable groups that may face severe challenges when confronted by law enforcement officials. 

One of those groups includes individuals with I/DD. The Arc's National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability reports that these individuals may be up to seven times more likely to encounter police than their neurotypical peers.

According to officials another study, published by Cornell University in 2017, found that people with emotional, physical, cognitive, or sensory disabilities are 44% more likely to be arrested by age 28. The percentage of Black men with disabilities who are arrested by age 28 is even higher—a rate of 55%. 

Unfortunately, many experts expect these numbers to increase as people struggle to cope with the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and several months of isolation. 

“Right now, during these uncertain times, training law enforcement to better serve individuals with I/DD is more essential than ever,” said Kristina Swindle, Director of Behavior Support Services at SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc.

Last month, Swindle led weekly classes at the Willingboro Police Department to help bridge the gap between individuals with I/DD and law enforcement according to officials. 

Expanding on the department’s required trainings, Swindle’s courses covered a wide range of topics including the characteristics of I/DD, what influences behavior, and how to respond to and prevent unwarranted situations. 

Individuals with I/DD may have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication. They may not comprehend verbal commands, tone of voice, eye contact, or gestures. This could lead to serious complications when confronted by law enforcement, according to Swindle. 

“If they are not approached and questioned in an appropriate manner, an individual with I/DD could become violent, angry, or confused,” Swindle said. “All of these traits could be considered suspicious or defiant by law enforcement.

But with this training, officers who respond to calls for assistance involving individuals with I/DD will have the education, perception, and understanding they’ll need in order to deescalate situations that could become unpleasant or even dangerous.” 

All 62 officers in Willingboro’s police department attended Swindle’s classes. 

“Training police on what to look for and how to interact with people who live with cognitive, developmental, or mental health disabilities is critical,” said Captain  Ian S. Bucs of the Willingboro Police Department.

“Having our entire department trained and prepared to respond to a call for help for a person with I/DD is ideal. “We are extremely grateful to have had Kristina Swindle and the SERV Behavioral Health team help develop and conduct this training for our officers,” he added.

“Individuals with I/DD need to know that when they interact with law enforcement, they will be respected and treated fairly. We look forward to further educating our officers and building stronger lines of communication between the Willingboro Police Department and the mental health community.”

SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. is a private, not-for-profit behavioral healthcare organization that provides integrated services to children, youth, and adults who are coping with chronic mental illness, substance use disorder, or intellectual/developmental disabilities.

SERV has facilities in 11 counties in New Jersey and serves approximately 1,800 consumers a year. Programs include a continuum of residential services, partial-care services, and outpatient care focusing on individual needs. 

The organization also advocates on a number of social issues including homelessness, hunger, addiction recovery, senior care, diversity and tolerance, and education.

For access to care, call 1-833-CAN-SERV or email