§ 1.12. Interacting with Vulnerable Populations

(a) The term “vulnerable populations” refers to individuals or groups who, by virtue of their age, identity, status, disability, or circumstance, may be particularly susceptible to criminal victimization and may face special challenges in their interactions with the police.

(b) Officers should treat all members of the public, including those who are in vulnerable populations, with sensitivity and respect.

(c) Agencies should ensure, through policies, training, and supervision, that officers are prepared to recognize potential vulnerabilities on the part of individuals with whom they are likely to come in contact, to interact safely and respectfully with different vulnerable populations, and to respond to individuals in crisis in ways that minimize the risk of harm.

(d) Agencies should engage proactively with vulnerable populations—as well as with the organizations and advocates who work with them—in order to build trusting relationships, identify issues of concern, and take care that policing occurs in a manner that addresses the unique needs of different vulnerable populations.

(e) Agencies should work with partners outside law enforcement—including criminal-justice system professionals, social-services providers, health practitioners, and courts—to identify and address the challenges facing different vulnerable populations, create alternatives to police interaction with these populations, and reduce their involvement in the criminal-justice system.


a. Definition and animating concerns. The term “vulnerable populations” describes the many individuals and communities who, by virtue of their age, identity, status, ability, or circumstance, may be at greater risk of criminal victimization and may face a unique set of challenges in interacting with the police. Vulnerable populations include, but are not limited to: people experiencing mental illness or psychiatric crisis; people with developmental disabilities; people who are deaf or hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired, or have other physical impairments; people experiencing addiction or substance-related impairment; minors and the elderly; people who are unhoused; people with limited English proficiency; people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ); and recent immigrants and undocumented persons. A vulnerability may derive from a person’s temporary or permanent condition or from an inherent characteristic of the person. And individuals may be members of more than one vulnerable group.

Although each vulnerable population has its own characteristics and challenges, what unites them is the fact that ordinary police protocols and practices often will fall short of meeting their needs—and may put vulnerable individuals at serious risk of harm. Handcuffing, for example, might impose special hardships on deaf individuals who have no way to communicate other than using their hands. Issuing verbal commands in a loud or aggressive manner may be especially frightening for persons with autism spectrum disorder or individuals who are in a mental crisis, and it may cause them to react in a manner that further escalates an encounter. Placing transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals in a holding cell with other detainees can potentially expose them to a heightened risk of physical harm.

The challenges that vulnerable individuals face in their interactions with the police are exacerbated by the fact that, historically, police officials have at times failed to accommodate the needs of vulnerable communities, and indeed sometimes have targeted vulnerable groups for enforcement or treated them in biased or harmful ways. Police officials have conducted undercover stings of gay men, and they have profiled and stopped transgender women as prostitutes. Officers have at times treated unhoused individuals with derision and disrespect. And they have not always taken seriously allegations of harm and abuse brought by various vulnerable groups. As a result, members of vulnerable communities may be reluctant to interact with the police or to turn to the police for help.

In this latter regard, there are of course notable parallels between vulnerable communities and communities of color, which also are disproportionately likely to experience aggressive or biased policing. Many of the Principles in this volume are aimed at reducing harmful practices, ensuring that officers treat all members of the public in a fair and impartial manner, and overcoming a history of past abuse. See §§ 1.04 (Reducing Harm), 1.07 (Promoting Police Legitimacy in Individual Interactions), 1.08 (Community Policing), 1.11 (Policing on the Basis of Protected Characteristics or First Amendment Activity), and 4.03 (Ensuring the Legitimacy of Police Encounters). The specific focus on vulnerable communities in this Section reflects the additional need for special accommodation that goes beyond the baseline imperative of impartial treatment, or the need to take affirmative steps to remedy past harms.

b. Respectful and unbiased treatment. Agencies should take steps to ensure—through policy, training, supervision, and, when appropriate, discipline—that officers interact safely and respectfully with members of vulnerable groups, and that they provide the same quality of services and police protection to vulnerable individuals as they do to others. Agencies should reevaluate existing policies, practices, and enforcement strategies to ensure that they are not imposing any unnecessary or disproportionate harms on members of vulnerable groups. Agencies also should implement training programs that are focused on building empathy and understanding and on giving officers the tools and strategies they need to engage positively with various vulnerable groups. Officers should be trained to recognize potential vulnerabilities, particularly those that may not be immediately apparent or may be mistakenly perceived by officers as threatening or noncompliant. Officers also should be trained on crisis intervention, as well as general strategies for de-escalating potentially violent encounters. And they should be made aware of the resources available to support them in their interactions with vulnerable individuals (e.g., language interpreters or behavioral specialists), as well as the resources to which they may be able to refer individuals in need. Finally, training should emphasize the importance of using appropriate, inclusive, and respectful language when interacting with and referring to vulnerable community members.

c. Community partnership and proactive engagement. These Principles adopt the view that policing agencies operate most effectively when they partner with their communities to co-produce public safety and minimize harm. See § 1.08 (Community Policing). The need for proactive engagement may be particularly acute when it comes to vulnerable groups. The organizations that work with and represent various vulnerable communities can help agencies to identify shortfalls in agency policies and practices and to develop and implement appropriate training to prepare officers to interact safely and respectfully with vulnerable groups. Direct engagement with members of vulnerable communities also can help build understanding and restore trust where it has been lost. Officers and agencies can use a variety of strategies to facilitate this sort of engagement, including by scheduling regular face-to-face meetings, designating liaison officers, and attending community activities and events. Partnerships with community-based organizations and other government-service providers also can promote a more holistic response to the needs of vulnerable populations—such as persons experiencing mental illness, addiction, or homelessness—who face a series of challenges that cannot be addressed by the police acting alone. See § 14.09 (Promoting a Holistic Approach to Public Safety). Policing agencies should develop relationships with other governmental and community actors, including mental-health practitioners and social-services providers, and should work with them to meet the needs of vulnerable groups. Agencies also should work with other government actors to develop alternatives to enforcement and incarceration in order to reduce the involvement of vulnerable populations in the criminal-justice system and limit the role of police as first responders. These may include pre-arrest diversionary strategies, such as crisis drop-off centers, detox centers, and temporary housing shelters, as well as post-arrest alternatives to incarceration, such as substance-abuse treatment or hospitalization. See also § 4.05 (discussing the use of citations in lieu of arrest).

Reporters’ Notes

1. Background and animating purpose. Police officers have an obligation to treat all members of the public in a fair, respectful, and unbiased manner. But often, it is not enough simply to treat everyone the same. Vulnerable populations have a unique set of challenges that may require special accommodations in order to ensure equitable and safe treatment on the part of the police. Int’l Ass’n of Chiefs of Police, Policing in Vulnerable Populations: Practices in Modern Policing (2018); see also Jamelia N. Morgan, Policing Under Disability Law, 73 Stan. L. Rev. 1401 (2021) (noting that the Americans with Disabilities Act may in some circumstances impose an obligation on policing agencies to provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities during police encounters and arrests).

Routine police protocols often fall short of serving vulnerable populations. For example, individuals with limited or no English proficiency simply may be unable to communicate with officers who do not speak their primary language. Susan Shah et al., Overcoming Language Barriers: Solutions for Law Enforcement, Vera Inst. of Just. (2007), https://www.lep.gov/sites/‌lep/files/resources/vera_translating_justice_final.pdf. Handcuffing deaf persons with their hands behind their back removes their ability to communicate. U.S. Dep’t of Just., C.R. Div., Commonly Asked Questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act and Law Enforcement (Dec. 1, 2008), https://www.ada.gov/q&a_law.htm; Jonathan Dollhopf, Police Interaction with the Deaf, Ctr. for Disability Rts., https://cdrnys.org/blog/advocacy/police-interaction-with-the-deaf/. Because unhoused persons carry all of their belongings with them, officers may need to take special care to properly secure these items after an arrest to ensure that they are not stolen or lost. Nat’l Law Ctr. on Homelessness & Poverty, Housing Not Handcuffs 40 (Dec. 2019), https://‌home‌lesslaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/HOUSING-NOT-HANDCUFFS-2019-FINAL.‌pdf. Recent immigrants and undocumented persons may be particularly reluctant to turn to the police for help. Matthew Lysakowski et al., Policing in New Immigrant Communities, Vera Inst. of Just. (2009), https://www.vera.org/downloads/Publications/policing-in-new-immigrant-com‌mu‌ni‌ties/‌‌legacy_downloads/e060924209-NewImmigrantCommunities.pdf.

These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that members of vulnerable groups have been disproportionately likely to experience police mistreatment and abuse—and may therefore be legitimately wary of interacting with the police. Scholars have documented a long history of police stings and raids within the LGBTQ community. See, e.g. Anna Lvovsky, Vice Patrol: Cops, Courts, and the Struggle over Urban Gay Life before Stonewall (2021). And in many jurisdictions, LGBTQ individuals continue to report disrespectful or biased treatment. Christy Mallory, Amira Hasenbush & Brad Sears, Discrimination and Harassment by Law Enforcement Officers in the LGBT Community The Williams Inst. (Mar. 2015). https://williamsinstitute.‌law.‌ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/LGBT-Discrimination-by-Law-Enforcement-Mar-2015.pdf. Officers have taken advantage of young people’s reduced cognitive ability and susceptibility to manipulation in getting them to waive their Miranda rights during police questioning. Barry C. Feld, Behind Closed Doors: What Really Happens When Cops Question Kids, 23 Cornell J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 395 (2013), available at https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/faculty_articles/286. Unhoused individuals have routinely been subjected to harassment and disrespect. See, e.g., Alex Horton, Two Officers Posed with ‘Homeless Quilt’ Made from Confiscated Signs. Their Chief Apologized, Wash. Post, Dec. 31, 2019. People experiencing mental illness are disproportionately likely to have excessive force used against them. See, e.g. U.S. Dep’t of Just., Investigation of the Portland Police Bureau (Sept. 12, 2012) (alleging a pattern of excessive force by Portland, Oregon, police officers against individuals with mental illness). And the risk of being subjected to police abuse and excessive force increases as disability intersects with race, class, gender, and LGBTQ status. See, e.g., Erin J. McCauley, The Cumulative Probability of Arrest by Age 28 Years in the United States by Disability Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender, Am. J. of Pub. Health 107, no. 12, at 1977-1981 (Dec. 1, 2017) https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.‌2017.‌304095.

2. Policymaking, training, and supervision. Agencies can promote safe and respectful interactions between officers and members of vulnerable communities through policies, training, and supervision. One of the challenges that officers face is simply learning to recognize signs of potential impairments or vulnerabilities and to adjust their behavior accordingly. Individuals with special needs, for example, may engage in behaviors that can easily be misperceived as threatening or noncompliant—such as avoiding eye contact, repeating words, or running from authorities. See, e.g., Meghan Keneally, Body Cam Footage Shows a 19-Year-Old with Autism being Shocked with a Taser, ABC News (July 13, 2018) (describing an incident in which police tased and handcuffed a 19-year-old autistic man after mistakenly concluding that he was intoxicated).

Training should prepare officers to recognize potential vulnerabilities and to be aware of the potential differences in behaviors and triggers both within and among different vulnerable groups. For example, a majority of states now require officers to receive at least some training on interacting with people experiencing mental illness or substance-abuse issues. Nat’l Conf. of State Legislatures, State Trends in Law Enforcement Legislation: 2014-2017 (Sept. 24, 2018), https://‌www.‌ncsl.‌org/‌research/civil-and-criminal-justice/state-trends-in-law-enforcement-legislation-2014-2017‌.aspx. But these trainings may not prepare officers fully to interact with individuals with Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder. Meg Anderson, How One Mother’s Battle is Changing Police Training on Disabilities, NPR (Apr. 13, 2019) https://www.npr.org/‌2019/‌04/13/‌705887493/‌how-one-mothers-‌battle-is-changing-police-training-on-disabilities. Similarly, only a small number of states train officers on teen development and psychology, or on interacting with older adults who may suffer from dementia or cognitive decline. Rhonda McKitten & Lisa Thurau, Where’s the State?: Creating and Implementing State Standards for Law Enforcement Interactions with Youth, Strategies for Youth (May 2017), https://strategiesfor‌youth.org/sitefiles/wp-content/‌uploads/‌2019/10/SFY-Wheres-the-State-Report-May2017.pdf; Rebecca T. Brown et al., Good Cop, Better Cop: Evaluation of a Geriatrics Training Program for Police, 65 J. Am. Geriatrics Soc’y 1842-1847 (Aug. 2017), https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.14899.

Agencies have developed a variety of programs and initiatives to train officers in interacting with vulnerable individuals. For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police is leading a campaign to encourage agencies to address the law-enforcement response to those with mental-health conditions. Over 600 agencies have signed on. Int’l Ass’n of Chiefs of Police, One Mind Campaign, https://www.theiacp.org/projects/one-mind-campaign (last visited: Nov. 20, 2021). Similarly, agencies, including the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department and the Tulsa Police Department provide diversity training for interactions with immigrant communities. Vera Inst. of Just., Engaging Police in Immigrant Communities, https://‌www.vera.org/‌projects/‌engaging-police-in-immigrant-communities-epic/toolkit. Some of the best training models are led by individuals from vulnerable populations. For example, crisis-intervention training would ideally include people who have personally experienced a mental-health crisis. U.S. Dep’t of Just., Bureau of Just. Assistance, Training for Police-Mental Health Collaboration Programs, Office of Justice Programs, https://bja.ojp.gov/‌program/‌pmhc/training.

Beyond training, agencies should consider promulgating concrete policies to guide encounters with vulnerable individuals. For example, in California, officers must make sure youth speak with an attorney before deciding whether to waive their rights and submit to interrogation—a policy recognizing the immaturity and vulnerability of young people. Cal. Welf. & Inst. § 625.6(a). Many agencies now provide officers with specific guidance on interacting with LGBTQ individuals, including clear rules about the use of preferred names and pronouns. See, e.g., Newark Police Division, General Order 2019-03 (Apr. 29, 2021), https://public.powerdms.‌com/‌NewarkPD/documents/1357212. Agencies also have adopted detailed protocols for interacting with deaf individuals, including adopting specific procedures for establishing effective communication, bringing in qualified interpreters, and using restraints in a manner that permits continued communication. See, e.g., San Francisco Police Dep’t, Department General Order 5.23 “Interactions with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals” (Sept. 28, 2020), https://www.‌sanfranciscopolice.‌org/‌sites/default/files/2020-10/SFPD.Notice20-13630301009.pdf. These types of policies can ensure that officers engage in just and unbiased policing, and preserve the dignity and well-being of vulnerable individuals.

3. Community partnerships. Finally, when it comes to addressing the needs of vulnerable communities, police cannot do it alone. Partnerships with other organizations, including community-based groups, are critical in identifying unmet needs, building trust with different vulnerable communities, and developing trainings and programs to improve police−citizen encounters. U.S. Dep’t of Just., Off. of Cmty. Oriented Policing Servs., Community Partnerships, The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), https://cops.usdoj.gov/‌com‌mu‌nity‌partnerships; Ashely Krider et al., Responding to Individuals in Behavioral Health Crisis via Co-Responder Models (Jan. 2020) https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/‌SJC‌Respond‌ing%20‌to%20Individuals.pdf. And as discussed in greater detail in § 14.09, community-based organizations and service providers can help address the many overlapping needs faced by some members of vulnerable groups—including homelessness, drug addition, mental illness, and poverty—that are not capable of being resolved through enforcement, or by the police acting alone. See § 14.09 (Promoting a Holistic Approach to Public Safety).

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