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Disability is a hidden side of the police violence epidemic

Like Alfred Olango and Keith Lamont Scott, at least 25 percent of people shot by police have a mental illness or disability.


As of October 3, at least 814 people had been killed by police in the United States in 2016, according to the Guardian. One of them was a man named Keith Lamont Scott, who was shot to death on September 20 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His wife filmed, while pleading with police, “Don’t shoot him,” and informing them he had a TBI, or traumatic brain injury.

The following week, police in El Cajon, California, responded to a 911 call about a man who appeared to be in an altered state due to an unspecified “mental illness.” When they arrived, they shot Alfred Olango because they thought he was pointing a gun at them (as it turns out, he was holding a vape pen). According to witnesses, he had a seizure shortly before police arrived.

Just days later, the wife of an allegedly bipolar man in Pasadena said he called the police for help — but when they arrived, they tased Reginald Thomas, beat him with batons, and kicked him. He died at the scene.

These three men, individually, faced completely different police forces in very different settings. They had three things in common: They were black, they were killed, and they were disabled. Scott, Olango, and Thomas joined the ranks of disabled people killed by police in encounters gone horribly wrong in America, as well as the ever-growing list of black Americans killed by police. The police in these cases almost always go without facing any criminal charges, and those who do are rarely found guilty.

Due to the lack of federal record-keeping, we can’t even tell you precisely how many people are killed by police in the US in any given year, let alone how many of them are disabled. But we do know it’s a lot: A report from the Ruderman Family Foundation earlier this year found wildly varying estimates of the number of disabled people killed by police, from 25 percent to more than 40 percent of police shooting victims. For perspective, census data puts the overall incidence of disability at about 20 percent of the population.

As with overall police killings, this data is hard to track, and advocates rely on media coverage, reporting from families and witnesses, and the few police departments that do disclose the statistics of officer-involved deaths. Often, disabilities go unidentified or undiscussed, which obscures the extent of disability involvement in the police killing epidemic.

Whether killed on scene or dead in custody, disabled people with a huge variety of impairments have systematic problems interacting with law enforcement. Ethan Saylor, killed in a chokehold in 2013, had Down syndrome. Sandra Bland, who died in custody in 2015, had epilepsy. Kajieme Powell, killed just days before Michael Brown in 2014, had schizophrenia. John T. Williams, a deaf Native American woodcarver, was killed in Seattle in 2010. Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold in 2014, had asthma. Daniel Harris, killed by a North Carolina state trooper this year, was deaf.

Jeremy Mardis, who had autism, was 6 years old when he was killed by Louisiana police in 2015. Joseph Weber, also autistic, was killed “in self-defense” in August. Melissa Boarts, who had bipolar disorder, was killed in a traffic stop this spring. In July, Joseph Mann, a homeless mentally ill man, was shot 14 times by police after they attempted to run him down with their patrol car. Jeremy McDole, who used a wheelchair for mobility, was shot in 2015. In 2014, Kaldrick Donald was shot by police after his mother called asking for help because he was in mental health crisis.

There is a growing awareness among the non-disabled public that to talk about police violence in the United States, it is necessary to also talk about disability and the role it plays in an alarming number of police shootings. But this is not just an issue of disability. It is also an issue of race, because many of the disabled people killed by police in America are people of color, with black and native men being particularly common targets. This is an intersectional issue — we cannot talk about one without talking about the other.

It’s also more tangled than many people realize. Disabled people and people of color are both at increased risk of being killed by law enforcement, which puts disabled people of color in a particularly dangerous position. At the same time, people of color in the United States are generally more likely to be disabled, or to lack adequate care, due to factors like environmental racism, occupational segregation, and poor access to health care. This is a systemic inequality that begins long before a fatal interaction with police ever takes place.

A huge range of impairments may interfere with someone’s ability to understand and comply with requests from police in even the most optimal of circumstances, including deafness, blindness, and mobility impairments, along with cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities. People with conditions like asthma, epilepsy, or severe migraines might be temporarily incapacitated. Mentally ill people in crisis may not only fail to understand police but could be actively afraid of them, or may turn combative from confusion and stress.

The sheer complexity of interacting with disabled people makes police reforms challenging, but it’s an issue that has a great deal in common with the work communities of color are performing to push back on the stereotypes and attitudes that lead to horrific outcomes in law enforcement encounters. In fact, disability is part of the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter, highlighting the intersectional movement work that has been driving conversations about police reform all along, albeit not necessarily in the spotlight.

Law enforcement officials in some regions of the country are exploring tools like mental health crisis teams, with officers specifically trained in deescalation and nonviolent conflict resolution. Yet in the Olango case, the clinician who would have been dispatched to go out with the officers was on another call. And after Saylor died in police custody, Maryland mandated disability awareness training for its law enforcement officers, but the training only covers developmental disabilities, not the myriad other disabilities officers may encounter.

Multiple cities have an accommodation or special citizen registry to allow disabled people to proactively put their disabilities on file, so responding officers may know what to expect when they arrive at a scene, but not always — and knowing what to expect is no guarantee of a safe outcome, as seen in numerous cases of mentally ill people killed by police when they or family members called for help in crisis.

Many of these approaches are flawed in that they approach policing on an individual basis but don’t pull back to take a larger look at how and why policing is done. For example, organizers for the movement for black lives argue for a national database of use of force encounters, along with demilitarization of police forces and other moves that would promote a return to community policing.

For disabled people, reforms to health care in America, especially mental health services, would reduce the incidence of medical and psychiatric crises that require emergency services, and funding for non–law enforcement response options would keep police uninvolved unless absolutely necessary. Comprehensive training for officers in interacting with disabled subjects, led by self-advocates, should supplement larger reforms, not replace them or act as a stopgap.

A rapid series of high-profile cases of police shootings involving disabled people and marked by protests across the United States could prove the spark that brings disability into the wider eye.