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San Diego sheriff launches program to improve interaction with people who have disabilities

San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is adopting a new strategy to improve their interactions with people who have disabilities: blue envelopes. KPBS reporter Katie Hyson has more.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is adopting a new strategy to improve its interactions with people who have disabilities: blue envelopes.

One in four Americans have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can hinder a person's ability to communicate or comply with law enforcement, who may not realize they have a disability.

“Speech patterns are different,” Sheriff Kelly Martinez said, “or the way that they might not want to look directly at someone, or they might simply not be able to hear or communicate in the way that a deputy or an officer might be used to.”


Diabetics with low blood sugar can mimic drunkenness, for example. A deaf person may appear not to be obeying orders. Someone with autism might avoid eye contact or run.

Those misunderstandings can have serious consequences. Americans with disabilities — especially Black Americans — are more likely to be arrested and killed by police.

The sheriff’s department plans to distribute free materials — including items like buttons, lanyards and seat belt covers — with a blue envelope logo. That logo signals to an officer that the person wearing it needs disability accommodations.

There’s also a physical blue envelope that can be stuffed with documents commonly requested by police, like identification, car insurance and registration. Accommodation requests and explanations of disabilities can be written on the envelope.

County Board Vice Chair Terra Lawson-Remer, whose 4-year-old daughter is on the autism spectrum, said the program is an important step toward safety.


“Neurodivergent people are contributing members of our community,” Lawson-Remer said, “but sometimes their speech pattern, movements and mannerisms can be different from what some would classify as typical behavior. For people who are not informed or trained to understand this, the actions of a neurodivergent person can be easily misunderstood.”

“The Blue Envelope Program will create greater understanding and shared respect between law enforcement and our neurodivergent neighbors,” she said. “And it might even help save lives.“

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond said Heather Mitchell — a crime prevention specialist in Fallbrook, and mother to a daughter on the autism spectrum — brought the idea to law enforcement after seeing a similar program launch in Connecticut in 2020.

The sheriff’s department rolled out additional training to officers and plans to launch the program Oct. 16. Participants don’t need to register, just pick up the materials from, or contact, a participating location.

Martinez said she hopes to expand the program to all emergency responder agencies in the county.

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