A new initiative in the Bangor area aims to teach students in driver’s education classes how they should act when stopped by police officers.
The Courageous Steps Project, a Penobscot County organization that advocates for people with autism and other developmental disabilities, is leading the effort and has partnered with Beal College.
This week, about 15 teens who are taking a course at the college’s driving academy received a live demonstration of what it’s like to be stopped by police.
One by one, they got into a car with their instructor and began driving through the Beal College parking lot, just off Farm Road. Each time, Officer Amie Torrey of the Ellsworth Police Department, who had agreed to help with the exercise, stopped the students.
In the simulation, she told the students she had stopped them because their passenger — the instructor — was not wearing a seatbelt. She asked for their license, registration and insurance. After a quick trip back to her cruiser, she let them off with a warning.
In each case, the students did what their instructor had told them to do when stopped by an officer: They kept their hands on the steering wheel, tried to stay calm and answered the officer’s questions.
While the program is meant to help all driving students learn the best practices for responding to a police officer, it’s particularly geared toward people with developmental disabilities.
Those people might react to the stress of being pulled over by making sudden gestures or trying to grab a nearby object, according to Connor Archer, a 20-year-old on the autism spectrum who is the founder, president and executive director of the Courageous Steps Project.
Those gestures could, in turn, alarm an approaching police officer who is trying to determine whether there are any threats.
“They tend to reach for something because they’re so panicked,” Archer said of some people on the autism spectrum. “Our goal is to show kids how to react calmly, to keep two hands on the wheel when they get pulled over.”
On Monday, representatives from multiple groups that serve people with developmental and other disabilities applauded the initiative, which is called Operation Hands On and comes at a time of heightened attention to the behavior of police who stop citizens.
While police should — and do — receive training in how to interact with people with various disabilities, it can only help if the training cuts both ways, said Kim Moody, the executive director of Disability Rights Maine, a statewide agency representing people with disabilities.
“I think it sounds fantastic,” she said of Operation Hands On. “There never has been a discussion among police and our clients about what the appropriate things are to do. … I’ve never seen a program, certainly in Maine, that trains people who will be stopped.”
Archer said he hopes the initiative can spread to other parts of the state.
Another person who said he wants that to happen is Robert Schwartz, the retired chief of the South Portland Police Department who now heads the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.
“With what little I know, I hope it expands,” Schwartz said. “Any program that helps law enforcement get into the community is certainly something that’s valuable.”
However, not all disability advocates greeted the new program so warmly.
Simonne Maline, the executive director of the Consumer Council System of Maine, a statewide group that supports people with mental health challenges, said she can see how the approach would be useful, but called it “sad that we have to teach people how to behave when the police stop you.”
“It’s bittersweet for me,” she said. “I want to think we don’t need these types of trainings in this age, but the reality is people with disabilities, and people of color, are experiencing more violence from the police than other people.”
A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Rachel Healy, said the organization had not heard of Operation Hands On. She also noted that disability groups would be better judges of how it could serve their clients.
In general, Healy said that any such program should include instructions on what rights citizens have when police are interrogating them. She noted that the ACLU has written guides for citizens and people who are deaf on interacting with police.
However, Healy also cautioned against any driver’s education class that places an undue burden on citizens who are interrogated by police.
“The more we all know our rights, the better we can be at advocating for them,” she wrote in an email. “But what does raise concerns is when trainings imply that the person being stopped is responsible for making sure the police behave properly. In fact, that responsibility lies with the police.”