The case of a young man with Down syndrome who was asphyxiated while in police custody last week has spiraled into a shocking national news story–yet another police scandal coming just on the heels of suspicions that LAPD plotted to burn Dorner alive. The tragedy began when 26-year-old Minnesota resident Robert Saylor was reluctant to leave a movie theater, prompting employees to call the police. Without stopping to learn from Saylor’s aide that he had Down syndrome, the police handcuffed him and restrained him on the ground until he died of asphyxiation.
The case, which has been ruled a homicide, has sparked outrage and fear among parents and allies of those with developmental disabilities, as well as those with mental illness. Yet, this is far from the first time that the police of state officials have mishandled interactions with those with disabilities, with tragic results. As the Center for Public Representation writes, there are “significant patterns in police killings of people with psychiatric disabilities.”
Below are only a few of the recent cases. An investigative article in the Portland Press Herald put it even more bluntly, writing, “A few times each week, across the United States, police shoot and kill mentally ill people in complicated, often incredible circumstances.”
1. 15-year-old autistic child tasered by police in Iowa
In Johnston, Iowa, police used a stun gun multiple times against a 15-year-old autistic teenager last spring. While this story made headlines because of the child’s age, the use of tasers against developmentally disabled or mentally ill people is quite common. A year-long investigation of the police department in Portland found that tasers are often used and abused–particularly against people with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses. As the Seattle Times writes, “The investigation singled out stun-gun use, saying officers frequently discharged them without justification or used them too many times on a given suspect.”
2. Mute man beaten to death by police in Toronto
In 2011 in Toronto, the police killed a 45-year-old mute man for not answering their questions. Charlie McGillivary had sustained brain injuries that left him unable to speak, but the police didn’t take the time to listen to the protests of his mother before tackling the man on the streets of Toronto. The two officers held him down and beat him until McGillivary went into distress. He died shortly afterward being transported to the hospital, and doctors suspected that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage from being beaten by a police officer’s baton.
3. Double amputee shot in the head by police in Texas
In Houston, Texas, the police responded to a call at a mental hospital that a man was acting aggressively last September. The man, Brian Claunch, was both mentally and physically disabled: he’d lost both an arm and a leg in a train accident and battled bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Wheelchair-bound and medicated, the man simply couldn’t have posed too imminent a threat for trained police officers, but that didn’t stop one from shooting Claunch in the head, killing him instantly. When pressed about the deadly use of force, the officer explained that Claunch was clutching something in his hands. The object, they learned after the fatal shooting, was a pen.
4. Schizophrenic murdered during police gang beating in California
People with developmental or mental disabilities are often doubly targeted by police violence because of high rates of homelessness and poverty among the population. The brutal murder of a schizophrenic and homeless man in Fullerton, California, last May demonstrates the fatal intersection of homelessness, mental illness and police brutality. Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic man who was also sleeping one the streets at the time of his murder, was approached by a gang of six police officers in July 2011. Homeless people frequently face police harassment and unwarranted arrests, but when Thomas allegedly refused to comply with his arrest, two of the officers held him down, while the other four took turns beating him with batons and stunning him with tasers for a full eight minutes. The beating left him comatose and entirely disfigured. He died less than a week later.
5. Autistic man shot and killed for carrying a toy gun in Miami
In September 2011, the Miami police murdered Ernest Vassell, a 57-year-old man, for refusing to relinquish his toy gun. Vassell was autistic and lived with his family in the neighborhood. But when the police saw Vassell walking down the street carrying a toy rifle, they began shouting at him to put down the weapon. Confused and scared by the officers, Vassell hesitated just long enough for the police to open fire, killing the man.
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