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Why do police keep seeing a person’s disability as a provocation?

Cops keep wrongfully killing the intellectually or psychiatrically impaired.

Harold Braswell is an Assistant Professor of Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University.

Police officers stand guard at an intersection as demonstrators (unseen) protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.  (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

On Aug. 11, Los Angeles police killed Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old who had allegedly resisted arrest, tackled an officer and reached for his gun. And last week, police shot a 25-year-old in Saint Louis, Mo. Kajieme Powell had approached them with a knife, refusing to back down after they had asked him to drop his weapon. Ford and Powell were black, so pundits have highlighted their similarities to Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

But perhaps they have more in common with 26-year-old Ethan Saylor, a white man. Last year, Saylor reentered a movie theater in Frederick, Md., to watch a second showing of “Zero Dark Thirty.” He did not have a ticket. The theater manager asked three sheriff’s deputies to remove him. When Saylor refused, they threw him to the ground; one lay on top of him, pressing Saylor with his full weight. “Mommy, mommy. It hurts,” Saylor pleaded, moments before he stopped breathing. His larynx had been crushed.

Here’s what ties these men together: They were disabled, and the cops’ failure to comprehend their disability is what got them killed.

Ford was known by community members to be psychiatrically disabled; based on his behavior, it appears that Powell was as well. Saylor had Down syndrome, and his IQ was reportedly 40. Like Powell and Ford, he committed a minor crime and resisted arrest. But also like them, his resistance was largely a product of his disability, which made it impossible for him to fully understand and comply with police requests. Police officers overreacted, with fatal results.

Such examples of use of force are part of a broader trend of police violence against persons with disabilities. David Perry and Lawrence Carter-Long have compiled a list of recent cases in which disabled individuals — people with diabetes, deafness, cerebral palsy — were wrongly arrested, and even assaulted, by police who interpreted their disabilities as provocations. But among disabled populations, those with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities face the highest risks.

The statistics are shocking. A 2012 investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram found that “about half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country are mentally ill.” Similar figures were found in a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriff’s Association. In local police departments, the ratios can be even higher: The New Mexico Public Defender Department found that, in 2010 and 2011, suspects shot by police had a mental illness almost 75 percent of the time.

Such statistics are sobering counterpoints to arguments that justify police violence in response to a suspect’s failure to comply. These arguments generally presume that the suspect is a mentally healthy individual making a conscious — and thus malicious — choice to resist. But psychiatrically or intellectually disabled suspects are not making such choices. They may be resisting because of a lack of understanding, or physical control, or both. In such cases, police violence should only be a last resort. But the high percentage of psychiatrically and intellectually disabled among police shootings indicate that the opposite is the case.

The video of Kajieme Powell’s killing makes this point. Powell was acting erratically while brandishing a knife.  But, as Conor Friedersdorf points out, the alacrity with which the responding officers drew their weapons escalated the situation. Contrary to both St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson — and the official police report — Powell does not walk toward them with his knife raised; rather, his hands are by his sides. The officers opened fire while he was still several feet away, and they continued to fire after he had fallen wounded to the ground.

Powell’s life did not have to end this way. While his advance was menacing, police officers could have created distance from him to deescalate the situation. If that failed, they could have subdued him with less violent means, such as a Taser or other non-lethal device. Though lethal violence may be necessary in extreme situations, the video of Powell’s killing provides further evidence that it is grossly overused.

Improved police training is necessary to fix this problem. Perry and Carter-Long advocate increasing funding for Crisis Intervention Teams and the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, both of which are designed to improve to mental health services within — and as an alternative to — the criminal justice system.  In addition, a greater emphasis on community policing will familiarize cops with the members of their precincts; they shouldn’t have to guess, in the heat of the moment, whether a person is acting from psychiatric disability or malicious intent. Finally, mental health services need to be further integrated into communities, and the intellectually and psychiatrically disabled should be provided with accommodations so that they can participate in communal life. This combination of policies can minimize conflicts between police and the disabled, while giving police a more nuanced toolkit to address conflicts when they occur.

Police misunderstanding, sadly, is nothing new. Sixty years ago, my mother was arrested in New York City. A cop had confronted her when she entered the subway without paying. When she ignored him and attempted to walk away, he arrested her, assuming that she was wising off. What he did not know was that she was autistic; because of her condition she either didn’t know or — more likely — simply forgot to pay her fare.  She was also deaf, which explained why she hadn’t listened to his commands.

At the end of the day, my mother was lucky. She was from a white family of means, and her father pulled some strings in the local Democratic Party to get her out of jail. But if an intellectually disabled woman could spend an afternoon locked up in the 1950s, I shudder to think what would happen to her today.

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Daniel W. Drezner · August 25, 2014

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