Why Do a Third of People Killed by Law Enforcement have Disabilities?

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Likely you’ve heard the news that a caregiver working at a group home in Miami was shot in the leg while assisting one of the home’s residents, a man with autism named Rinaldo. Police were at the scene because a 911 call reported a man with a gun contemplating suicide. Actually, the man was holding a toy truck and was not in danger. However, he failed to respond to shouted instructions from the officers at the scene. When a caregiver showed up, he lay down on the ground with his hands in the air and invited Rinaldo to do the same. Still, an officer fired one shot and struck the caregiver in the leg. A few days after the incident, Rinaldo’s family reports that he is so upset that he is neither eating nor sleeping.

I give thanks to God for police officers and for their work as community protectors. Their work can be extremely difficult, and in tense situations they must make difficult decisions in which they, their fellow officers, and people in the community are at risk. Besides responding to potentially criminal situations, they have to respond to calls about people threatening suicide, missing loved ones who have dementia or mental illness, domestic violence calls, and many other important ways to help people in crisis. I assume that most of these situations are handled well. That has been our experience; several times our oldest daughter had medical crises and received help from first responders. 

Yet, like the recent incident in Miami illustrated painfully, police can seriously mishandle situations involving some people. “Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. Disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated. The media is ignoring the disability component of these stories, or, worse, is telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism.” (Ruderman White Paper, Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability – March 2016)

Although about 19 percent of people live with disabilities in the U.S., a third of people killed by law enforcement have disabilities. I'm no expert, but here are some reasons I've found for such a high percentage of deaths:

Communication Differences

If a police officer pointed a gun at you and said, “Freeze,” what would you do? The answer is obvious, right? Maybe not. What if you did not understand metaphor, which is true for many people including some people with autism and/or intellectual disabilities. To the command to freeze, someone might respond that they are not feeling cold. The situation could escalate quickly.

If a police officer told you with a commanding voice, “On the ground, face down, hands behind your head,” what would you do? Many people with autism and/or intellectual disability cannot understand a series of commands, so instead of complying they might “resist” which could, again, lead to escalation and harm to one or more persons involved. Police often rely on what is called “compliance-based policing”, requiring quick compliance to their commands. However, this style of policing can put some people at serious and unnecessary risk.  

Lack of Proper Training

A Washington Post article on police shootings of people with mental illnesses says, “Although new recruits typically spend nearly 60 hours learning to handle a gun, according to a recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, they receive only eight hours of training to de-escalate tense situations and eight hours learning strategies for handling the mentally ill.”

Counterproductive Tactics

That same Post article says, “police are taught to employ tactics that tend to be counterproductive in such encounters, experts said. For example, most officers are trained to seize control when dealing with an armed suspect, often through stern, shouted commands. But yelling and pointing guns is ‘like pouring gasoline on a fire when you do that with the mentally ill,’ said Ron Honberg, policy director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.”

Suicide by Cop

Perhaps Kajieme Powell chose a method of taking his own life that is so common it has a name, "Suicide by Cop". When Powell stole energy drinks and donuts from a convenience story, the owner called the police who found him walking around in front of the story with the energy drinks on the ground in front of him. When the officers arrived, witnesses say, he was holding a knife and shouting, “Shoot me. Kill me now.” The police officers were in a difficult and potentially dangerous situation, and they began shooting Powell within 15 seconds of their arrival.

Defaulting to Law Enforcement for Mental Health Treatment

According to a report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Each year, 2 million jail bookings involve a person with mental illness. Approximately 15% of men and 30% of women in local jails have a serious mental illness. One in 4 people killed in officer-involved shootings has a serious mental illness. These numbers just begin to show some of the relationships—and consequences—of a sad truth: With our failing mental health system so inadequate, law enforcement agencies have increasingly become de facto first responders to people experiencing mental health crisis.”

Budget Cuts

Officers can protect their communities best when they know their communities. Yet, budget cut, staff reductions, and unfilled positions put increasing pressure on officers to handle difficult situations quickly and efficiently without knowing the individuals involved. Of those one in four people with mental illnesses killed in officer-involved shootings, how many of these deaths could have been avoided if officers knew their communities and knew the individuals who were more likely to behave erratically?

I don’t know if our streets are becoming more violent, or if we are suddenly more aware of lethal encounters between police and civilians. But I do hope and pray that the new awareness will lead to healthy changes in law enforcement that will be just and will set officers in the role that, I expect, most of them aspired to when they chose their professions, to protect the people in their communities well.

What is your experience?

Are you a police officer? What are you seeing from your perspective?

Have you or a loved one with a disability had an encounter with a police officer? How did the situation resolve?

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