The recent tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, has all-too-painfully illustrated the real and deadly effects that police response can have on a community. For people with disabilities—more than 63 million of them in the U.S.—the threat is all too real. It’s estimated that nearly 15 percent of all calls to the police involve a person with mental illness or disability in crisis. And how officers treat these individuals is too often violent.
In an article in The Atlantic, Lawrence Carter-Long and David M. Perry chronicle several tragic instances of people with disabilities victimized by the police: individuals with cerebral palsy forcibly arrested because officers thought they were drunk; a deaf man Tasered repeatedly because he couldn’t hear the police. The list is unending, and each case involves police mistaking disability for noncompliance.
The disability community recently crafted the hashtag #DisabilitySolidarity to discuss crucial aspects of life for people with disabilities, specifically for people of color. Countless users tweeted about prejudice, intersectionality, and police discrimination.
When Kajieme Powell was murdered on the street in St Louis because of a undiagnosed disability, that could've been me #disabilitysolidarity— nealcarter (@nealcarter) August 22, 2014
While most police officers do receive training on “the special needs population,” the problem is they are trained to defuse situations by issuing commands, such as “Drop that!” and “Get on the ground!” When officers encounter individuals who are unable to follow or understand these commands, like those with mental or physical disabilities, impatient officers can react quickly and forcibly—often with deadly consequences.
In January 2013, these consequences cost Ethan Saylor his life. Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, tried to re-watch a movie in a theater without buying another ticket. As Jeremy Meyer recounts in a Denver Post article, the police were begged to let Saylor’s mother, who was en route, handle the situation herself and peacefully assist Saylor out of the movie theater. Police ignored this advice and instead used brute force to remove Saylor. The young man died on the scene from a crushed larynx after screaming “Mommy, mommy. It hurts.”
“There’s so much I guess law enforcement isn’t aware of sometimes when it comes to people with disabilities,” says Michael Woody, an expert in police training.
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