This man is using his disabilities and past to help train police

Katherine Burgess
The Wichita Eagle (TNS)
Conner Jackson, left, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, talks to a group of law enforcement officials during a crisis intervention training course at the Independent Living Resource Center on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 in west Wichita, Kan. By his side is his Gateway supervisor Kary Wade. (Fernando Salazar/Wichita Eagle/TNS)

WICHITA, Kan. — Only a few years ago, Conner Jackson would become anxious and paranoid at the sight of a police officer.

Now Jackson is using his experiences with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder to train officers from the Wichita Police Department, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, the Wellington Police Department, the Kansas Department of Corrections and more.

At the end of a training session last week, he took a selfie with the officers.

“I think it’s phenomenal, because I get to speak with officers and move forward from my past,” Jackson said. “They’ll better understand how to help other people with disabilities.”

In the past: Jackson, 23, loves playing basketball, riding horses, listening to country music and rooting for the Texas Longhorns.

He’s a graduate of Starkey’s Gateway Program, which provides specialized support for people with a dual diagnosis of an intellectual disability and mental illness. He rides the city bus to his job at Carlos O’Kelly’s and is on a list to move from group housing into a duplex, which will give him more independence.

The road to success wasn’t easy for Jackson, who was diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder in kindergarten.

Jill Erickson, Jackson’s mother, said Jackson was able to attend school and play traveling sports as he grew up. Although the family — including Jackson’s five older siblings — ran differently because of Jackson’s diagnoses, he was able to live a normal, functioning life.

But after he graduated from Mulvane High School, “everything went wrong,” Erickson said. Jackson was taken to a hospital for dehydration, and his medications were changed. His paranoid schizophrenia began to show, and he became violent.

Jackson eventually joined the Gateway program and moved into a supervised group home. The Gateway building had Plexiglas windows, a fence and furniture bolted to the ground.

It was during this period that Jackson had run-ins with the police. Once, he broke a staff member’s car window and had to pay restitution.

He was taken to jail on several occasions and had several stints in the Osawatomie State Hospital.

His mother says his schizophrenia made him afraid and distrusting of police, security guards, other residents, even his own parents.

“If we couldn’t have gone to Starkey, what would I have done?” Erickson said. “I don’t know what we would have done.”

Now, that’s all in the past.

Officers and disability: Before officers were trained in crisis intervention, they sometimes responded to Starkey calls with aggression and less knowledge of how to interact with people with disabilities, said Kary Wade, supervisor of the Gateway program.

Law enforcement officials listen to Conner Jackson, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, during a crisis intervention training course at the Independent Living Resource Center on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 in west Wichita, Kan. By his side is Gateway supervisor Kary Wade. (Fernando Salazar/Wichita Eagle/TNS)

In one instance, an officer confronted a Starkey client who was nonverbal. The officer perceived the person’s lack of response as defiance, as staff members tried to explain that the person didn’t understand the commands.

Policing people with disabilities requires education about those disabilities, Starkey employees say.

People with disabilities made up about 1 in 5 Americans in 2010, according to census data. In this survey, disability was defined as a physical or mental impairment that affects one or more major life activities.

Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. has a serious mental illness in a given year that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“When police fail to understand that they are dealing with a person with a special condition, the result is sometimes a use of force that may be legally and morally justifiable, especially if the person appeared to be threatening the safety of others, but which produces a very unfortunate outcome,” wrote researchers in a 2012 paper by the Police Executive Research Forum.

Crisis intervention: Today, Starkey employees are able to request an officer who has received crisis intervention training, the 40-hour course that includes an hour of hearing from Jackson.

Those officers often talk first with a Starkey employee, learning about the situation before responding.

Deputy Narciso Narvais, president of the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department crisis intervention training, said officers don’t leave the training ready to diagnose a disability, but they do leave able to tell whether a situation requires additional expertise.

Ultimately, the training helps officers to realize that different people may need different interaction but that being professional and calm always helps.

Conner Jackson, right, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and his Gateway supervisor take a selfie with a group of law enforcement officials following a talk he gave at a crisis intervention training course at the Independent Living Resource Center on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 in west Wichita, Kan. (Fernando Salazar/Wichita Eagle/TNS)

“Rather than approaching things hard and fast and escalating things because of the tension you’re creating yourself, we’re trying to get them to create opportunities for de-escalation,” Narvais said.

The training began in Sedgwick County in 2007. Since then, the program has trained almost 500 officers.

In the past, people with disabilities would sometimes be released from jail without their organization knowing, leaving them to walk off into the community on their own. Now, systems are in place to notify organizations of a release.

During the training, Jackson told officers that it’s important for them to understand his diagnosis and how he responds to pressure. He also said it’s best for just one officer to speak to him off to the side, rather than multiple officers approaching him at once.

Hearing from Jackson is a particularly important component of the training, Wade said.

“Conner has experienced it,” Wade said. “Conner’s the one who knows how he felt during that exact moment, what his anxiety felt like, what his paranoia felt like, what his frustration felt like. I was seeing it from the outside and he was experiencing it firsthand, so who better to tell that story than him?”