Up to Half of All People Killed By the Police Have a Disability of Some Kind

Elle Beau ❇︎
Feb 5 · 7 min read

The police brutality story that mostly isn’t getting talked about

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

Robert Ethan Saylor (Frederick, MD: 2013) was a 26-year-old young man with Down’s syndrome. Saylor was waiting in the movie theater after the movie ended while his aide left to get the car ready. An employee approached Saylor and said he would have to buy another ticket or leave the theater. When Ethan, who was waiting for his aide, wouldn’t leave, theater security called the police. Four police offices dragged Saylor from the theater, threw him face down to the ground, and all four sat on him. They handcuffed his arms behind his back so he could not breathe. By the time the police turned him over, Saylor was dead. The officers were not disciplined.”

Unfortunately, this is a much more common occurrence than anyone would like to believe. “In fact, roughly a third to a half of all people killed by police are disabled. Many more disabled civilians experience non-lethal violence and abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers,” according to the Ruderman Foundation who did an extensive study of the issue in 2016. Other organizations who have studied the issue concur.

Police brutality is a nationwide problem. “The Bureau of Justice Statistics (a subdivision of the Justice Department) surveyed 6,000 people and estimated that 500,000 persons each year are ‘hit, held, pushed, choked, threatened with a flashlight, threatened or sprayed with pepper spray, threatened with a gun or other form of force’ by the police. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports states that about 300 ‘justified homicides’ by police occur each year, but does not record police killings considered unjustified.”

What we mostly hear about in the news is how police brutality affects Black people, and that is a serious problem, but the truth of the matter is, people with disabilities also suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police. American policing has a “compliance culture” where a failure to immediately obey commands is viewed as a provocation for use of force. If a person does not do as they are told right away they are likely to be treated as a threat even if it is because they are deaf, have mental health issues, or developmental disabilities.

For those who fall into both demographics, both Black and disabled, the chances of harm or death at the hands of the police goes up exponentially.

The combination of disability and skin color amounts to a double bind, says Talila A. Lewis, a community lawyer and volunteer director of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD). The U.S. government, Lewis explains, uses “constructed ideas about disability, delinquency and dependency, intertwined with constructed ideas about race to classify and criminalize people.”

In a culture like ours with a strong social hierarchy, deaf and disabled people are often looked upon as anywhere from invisible to inherently worthy of disrespect or scorn, their disability seen by many as some sort of moral failing. They have long had to fight to be considered full human beings with the same civil rights as other citizens, with full access to education, public transportation, and employment. The fact that they don’t always behave the way they are “supposed to” contributes to higher levels of harm at the hands of the police, who may never even consider that the person they are dealing with is deaf or has a disability.

In Seattle, Washington in 2010, John T. Williams was a deaf 50-year-old seventh generation Nitinaht carver of the Nuu- chah-nulth First Nations. He was walking down a street with a pocketknife and a piece of wood in his hands. He walked passed a police car and the officer noticed him carrying a knife in his hand. The officer yelled at Williams to “put the knife down.” Williams was unable to hear him. The officer shot him five times. John died from his wounds.

My son Hugh is 22 years old, non-verbal, and on the autism spectrum. We have him registered with our local police department in case he is ever separated from either us or his caregiver, but in a fast-moving situation, an officer on the scene might not bother to check the records to determine that he is a person with a disability.

Hugh hasn’t bought into social mores in the same way that the rest of us have, and although this is often a good thing, it also means that he is unlikely to comply with the commands of a stranger, which could be very dangerous for him. Mostly, I try not to think about it because non-compliance is somewhat of a specialty of Hugh’s. Instead, we just try to focus on how we’ve gotten this far without him getting separated from us and keep hoping for that to continue.

Imagining what might happen if he ever did get separated from us scares me to death, in part because Hugh is 6'6" and very strong. If someone he didn’t know was yelling commands at him, and then tried to physically force him to comply, it would be a disaster. As I said, I try not to think about it too often, but, at least he’s White and someone that many people find charming and likable. However, nobody deserves to die simply for being non-compliant, or for not fitting some cultural idea of what an “appropriate” sort of person looks and acts like.

It is likely that the rates of police violence against people with disabilities will rise. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has found that cities are increasingly criminalizing homelessness through passing laws that forbid loitering on public streets, panhandling, etc. Given that close to 40% of the people who are homeless have a disability, this trend towards criminalization further increases the likelihood that people with disabilities will have more contact with the police, and hence are more likely to be subject to police violence.”

American policing is way too focused on might makes right and compliance culture. Even people who treat police officers with disrespect do not deserve to die for that and in addition, the police are often asked to handle situations that they do not have adequate training around. In 2016, the Black therapist of an autistic adult who had wandered away from his group home was shot while laying on the ground with his hands in the air while the young man he was trying to apprehend sat nearby playing with a toy car.

The therapist, Charles Kinsey, was professionally trained to handle that situation, but instead of being allowed to do so, the police swooped in and made a mess of it. The officer who shot Kinsey in the thigh claimed that he believed the autistic man had a gun and was threatening Kinsey. He said he actually had intended to shoot him. So, not only was an unarmed therapist lying on the ground with his hands in the air needlessly shot but a person with developmental disabilities who was holding a toy car nearly got shot as well. They should have talked to Kinsey and then supported him in doing his job.

We cannot expect the police to be competent social workers or mental health experts, but we can train them to use de-escalation techniques that will be employed before resorting to force. No unarmed person should ever die as the result of a traffic stop or some other routine interaction with the police — even if they are belligerent, even if they are resisting arrest. De-escalation tactics ought to be the first order of business in nearly all instances and in at least some of them, somebody else entirely with more expertise should be called to the scene to help handle it.

Some municipalities have upped training for their officers around how to interact with citizens with autism or other disabilities, and some cities, such as Los Angeles, have set up teams to work with people with psychiatric conditions, but disability rights organizations say that they are rarely called upon and that police violence against citizens who are deaf or have disabilities continues to be a serious issue. “The Justice Department has entered into consent decrees in New Orleans, Seattle and Portland where the police have been found to engage routinely in excessive violence against peoples with disabilities.”


1. National accounting of cases of police violence and police killings that include the disability status of victims.

2. National and state policies requiring the police to wear cameras that document their actions. In cities where police where cameras, police violence sharply declines.

3. Increased training for police departments on working with people with disabilities.

4. Develop independent review boards to monitor police responses to peoples with disabilities, evaluate disability protocols and provide recommendations.

5. Develop changes in emergency responses protocols so that when families call an emergency number for mental health support, the police are not automatically called unless requested.

Policing in this country is in serious need of an overhaul. Fewer than 5% of arrests are for violent crimes, and interacting with the population as a whole as if they are all dangerous criminals is not the way to serve and protect. Treating those at the lower rungs of the social hierarchy with even less respect means that instead of being able to rely on the police for help and support, those with disabilities have good cause to fear them and Black people with disabilities even more so. Our society needs to do better and it can if we continue to demand it.

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Elle Beau ❇︎

Written by

Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

Inside of Elle Beau

The collected works

Elle Beau ❇︎

Written by

Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

Inside of Elle Beau

The collected works

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