How Disability Factors Into Police Violence

By Saigon Flowr

On September 27, 2016, Alfred Olango joined the ever-growing list of police-inflicted fatalities. This time, the victim wasn’t just a bystander; he was someone the police had been called to help. The victim’s sister called 911 three times to get help for her brother, who was in severe mental and physical distress. After she waited 51 minutes for assistance, Olango’s sister says police arrived on the scene and within minutes shot her brother dead while he was having a seizure.

Olango’s case is one of hundreds of near-daily incidents happening across the country, where police intervention leads to the death of Black and Brown people before the officers themselves get a clear picture of the scene they’re attending to. The “shoot first, ask questions later (if at all)” pattern of policing continues to plague this country with an epidemic of unaccountability and injustice at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve us. This is troubling enough. But a closer look at high-profile cases like Sandra Bland, LaQuan McDonald, and Eric Garner surfaces an even more disturbing truth that both government officials and media outlets continue to ignore.

These Black victims were also suffering from various disabilities, mental health issues, or other health conditions when their chance encounters with police turned deadly. Sandra Bland had been suffering from depression. LaQuan McDonald suffered from PTSD and other complex mental health problems. Eric Garner had a longstanding history of asthma and asphyxiated while pinned to the ground. The majority of media outlets seem to scour the farthest depths to look for criminality in these victim’s pasts, yet somehow manage to miss the importance of these victim’s health conditions at the time of their deaths.

Still, police continue to execute disabled, sick, or mentally ill individuals at will, with little outcry outside of the communities in which they occur. On July 11 veteran officers in Sacramento fired 18 shots at 51-year-old Joseph Mann, striking him 14 times. Mann was a former department of corrections employee who suffered a psychotic break after the death of his mother in 2011 and subsequently became homeless. Officers claim that Mann threatened them, but their reaction — shooting 18 bullets at an ill homeless man — raises the question of whether “fear” is merely an excuse to justify abuse of power.

Oddly enough, police officers seem to have no trouble understanding disability when it comes to their own pain. Betty Shelby was recently charged in the murder of Terence Crutcher, shooting him in the back with his hands raised after his car broke down. In a press conference, Shelby repeatedly reported how much she feared for her life when she shot Crutcher. Now her attorneys claim that Shelby suffered a “temporary hearing loss” due to stress, in efforts to excuse her for Crutcher’s murder. But people who are actually deaf — like Demouria Hogg, a partially deaf Black man who police encountered as he lay unconscious in a car — can be tased and shot dead for not responding to officers’ commands. Shelby’s dubious defense illustrates that the actual barriers racialized disabled and mentally ill people face can be used to justify police’s deadly actions, but not our inaction.

A third to half of all police-caused fatalities involve victims who have a disability, mental health issue, or ongoing health problem. This indicates a very dangerous pattern that highlights how inadequate police training is in dealing with those of us with any health issues. It also ignores a very deadly truth that emerges from the intersections of race and disability: that racialized people with disabilities, mental health issues, or any sort of health condition simply have no chance of surviving encounters with police.

The disturbingly high number of police inflicted fatalities of disabled or otherwise ill people illustrates a serious and desperate need for additional care. But even in cases where there are procedures in place for preventing police violence against the disabled, current approaches are either insufficient or deliberately ignored. In San Diego County, where Olango was murdered, officials invested $1.6 million in August 2015 into a program specifically designed for this type of situation, with a further substantial investment in January 2016. The Psychiatric Emergency Response Team program, or PERT, pairs mental health professionals with PERT-trained law enforcement officials, giving them the tools to de-escalate mental health emergencies and help individuals in crisis. PERT’s implementation was intended to avoid forced hospitalization and incarceration for those suffering from mental health related issues that cost taxpayers millions annually but ultimately do not help the disabled and mentally ill. And yet the officers who killed Olango, who allegedly knew they were responding to a mental health emergency situation, chose not to follow procedure set for this very type of emergency call.

In the last few years, we have seen increased attention to the extrajudicial murders by police that disproportionately affect racialized people. And it’s clear that race and disability/mental health also intersect, to put Black and Brown people at an additional risk when faced with law enforcement. But even outside of intersections with race, this trend indicates deep problems with police handling of sick and disabled people in general. It’s something that every single person in this country should be concerned about.

John Williams, a deaf Native American wood carver, was shot to death for being unable to hear police commands. Ethan Saylor, a young white man with Down syndrome, died of asphyxiation while being accosted by police for spending the day at the movies. This illustrates that the method of policing and excessive force, though inherently anti-black, is seeping out of being contained within the African-American community. Non-black people need to also start holding their government officials, elected representatives and police forces accountable for what #BlackLivesMatter has been saying for years: “comply or die” is an unethical, unnecessary, and violent approach to policing. We deserve better.

Use of force, excessive or not (a subjective assessment in itself), cannot continue to be the go-to method of policing when it comes to the disabled, sick, or mentally ill. It’s illogical to even consider using force to demand compliance, without properly assessing an individual’s cognitive capabilities or health condition to evaluate whether they’re at all capable to comply, much less understand what’s even being asked of them.

CDC research shows that 53 million adult Americans (1 in 5) suffer from a disability. An estimated 7.9 million suffer from severe mental illness — 4 million of which go untreated. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely than people without mental illness to be killed in an encounter with police. These numbers show that police use of deadly force when it comes to the sick and disabled needs to start being discussed and addressed as a national health crisis.

Olango is not the first victim, nor will he be the last, until disability and mental health (especially its intersections with race, recent immigration/refugee status, language barriers and poverty) come to the forefront of long overdue discussions regarding dire police reform and accountability measures. Municipal, state, and federal legislation needs to be created to address guaranteed protections of the disabled, sick, and mentally ill from current dangerous methods of policing. In the interim, we are in immediate need of community-based alternatives. With mere weeks until the election, disability and mental health need to start being at the forefront of Americans’ concerns. This affects all of us.

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