Richmond County Sheriff's Office updates procedures for arresting disabled people

The policies for arresting the disabled have been updated by the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office after a complaint was upheld by the U.S. Department of Justice. The changes were made after a man’s wheelchair was impounded after his arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct and a bench warrant.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said there were already procedures in place for handling persons with special needs. The updated policy versions just hew more closely to what’s required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Strength said.

“Generally we take every precaution to make sure that person is handled carefully,” Strength said Tuesday.

In an interview in May, Edward Smith said jail deputies left him on a cell floor after he fell out of his wheelchair. He said deputies walked away saying, “He ain’t bleeding, he’s fine.”

Smith also said that his new wheelchair was impounded and sold.

Smith said the bench warrant was a 6-year-old unpaid parking ticket that was dismissed as soon as he went before a judge.

He wants more training from deputies on how to handle persons with special needs, but is glad to at least have updated policies.

“It’s a beginning,” he said.

Strength countered Tuesday that Smith was verbally abusive toward deputies and belligerent, and that the wheelchair was impounded because Smith refused to give an address where his wheelchair could be delivered.

The sheriff said when people with disabilities are arrested “99.9 percent of the time they are cooperative.”

The policy for transporting “persons with mobility devices” says that the arresting officer should contact jail administration or booking on the weekends to check the availability of a wheelchair-accessible van. If the van is not available, transportation should be arranged through Gold Cross ambulance service.

“Under no circumstance should the arresting officer impound an arrestee’s wheelchair or other
mobility device,” the policy says.

The booking policy says “special consideration” should be given to a person with a mobility device and that it’s an ADA violation to separate disabled people from their wheelchairs, walkers, motorized scooters or crutches. If it seems that the device poses a security risk, a major or captain should be contacted so that a decision can be made on an individual basis.

Tim Hollobaugh, a local advocate for people with disabilities, said the new policies signal a change at the sheriff’s office.

He said mistreatment of the disabled by deputies fosters mistrusts and makes “the sheriff’s office and the county look abusive instead of helping.”

“The new policies will make it easier for people (with disabilities) to negotiate the criminal justice system,” he said.

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