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Plans to create a special needs registry for law enforcement faces concerns from disability rights groups

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Florida lawmakers are trying to reduce the number of bad outcomes between people with disabilities and law enforcement. Not all disabilities can be seen, and some lawmakers have pitched the idea of creating a special needs registry so that law enforcement will be better informed when responding to calls. But, the registry idea is plagued by concerns around privacy, consent, and the potential to be labeled a criminal when a person has done nothing wrong.

Arnaldo Rios Soto fled his Miami group home in 2016 with a toy truck. He was found sitting in the middle of the road, and he did not respond to officer commands. Soto has Autism--something officers did not know at the time. Caregiver Charles Kinsey laid down next to Santos and tried to explain the situation to officers. Neither man was armed, but one officer, believing the toy truck was a gun—fired at Soto—and hit the caregiver in the leg. In 2019, that officer was convicted of misdemeanor culpable negligence. This isn’t the only case but it’s the one often referenced when talks turn to law enforcement interactions with people with disabilities.

“We agree this is a problem that absolutely needs to be solved. Half the people killed by law enforcement each year have disabilities," said Disability Rights Florida's Olivia Babis.

The figure she cites comes from a report issued by the Ruderman Family Foundation which found a third, to half of all fatal police interactions involve a person with a disability. Babis told the Senate Children and Families Committee Tuesday that a better plan is to give officers more training, and she is opposed to a proposal that would create a special needs registry.

Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur's special needs registry bill houses the registry at the Department of Health and allows law enforcement to access it when responding to calls.

“A lot of advocates feel like—and again, it doesn’t replace the training of law enforcement—but if they [law enforcement] can get an earlier heads up, it would allow them to more respectfully and appropriately interact with that population," Brodeur said in explaining his bill.

Parents, guardians, and caregivers would be able to place people on the registry, without their consent. People could also add themselves voluntarily.

“The fact people can’t get themselves off the list, the fact family members caregivers, and guardians can add anyone of any age to the list…without consent and there doesn’t seem to be any notification to a person when they’re added onto this list," is problematic, said Babis.

Plus, the information in the registry would be shared to the Florida Crime Information center database—which is used by employers to conduct background checks.

“So, if you were applying for a job, and you're on this registry, your potential employer does a background check, you’re showing up in the crime information system, which is problem number one. But then, it’s kind of outing the person with the disability who may not have wanted their potential employer to know they have a disability," Babis said.

The organization’s concerns about privacy and consent are also shared by Republican Sen. Gayle Harrell.

“If you have the capacity [to consent] you must be the one to do that," she said. "I think that’s a key issue that needs to be cleaned up.
Harrell is also concerned about the link to the crime registry, and the potential to inadvertently label someone as guilty by association. Brodeur says he gets those concerns and admits even he isn’t a fan of parts of his proposal.

“This is clearly not meant to punish anybody, I wouldn’t want anyone looking up in a registry I voluntarily signed up for, so we will fix things going forward and you’ll see a changed bill as it moves forward.”

Yet all too often in the legislative processes, many of those promised changes fail to materialize, and disability rights advocates worry a proposal with good intentions, but bad execution could do more to hurt the people it purports to protect.

Corrected: February 9, 2022 at 9:54 AM EST
edited to correct the spelling of Soto's and Babis' last names.
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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