The Numbers Are Shocking: Over a Third of Killings by Police Are of Disabled People

A new white paper says disability is often overlooked in media coverage of police brutality.

Photo Credit: Flickr / Jeremy Brooks

When Eric Garner was choked to death by police, his race, and the longstanding issue of police violence in African-American communities, was highlighted in news reports. His last words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. But other aspects of his death were largely ignored in the press. Garner had asthma and a heart condition. Like one third to one half of all those killed by police, he was disabled.

"Disability is the missing word in media coverage of police violence," David Perry and Lawrence Carter-Long write in a new white paper on disability and policing from the Ruderman Family Foundation. Most of the high-profile cases of police violence between 2013 and 2015 involved individuals with disabilities. Sandra Bland, who Texas authorities claim committed suicide while in their custody, was denied access to her anti-epilepsy drug Keppra, which can lead to depression when suddenly withdrawn. Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in Baltimore, was a victim of childhood lead poisoning.

When disability is mentioned in connection with police violence, according to the Ruderman paper, it's rarely treated as a structural issue, like racism. Instead, it's used as a way to generate pity or blame. The New York Post's Bob McManus, for example, wrote that Garner should not have resisted police given his disabilities. McManus blames Garner for his own death; since Garner was aware of his health conditions, in McManus' view, he should not have resisted. "He was a victim of himself. It’s just that simple," McManus concludes. McManus' confused and ableist logic suggests that police only have a duty of care for able-bodied people. When the disabled are injured in police custody, it's their own fault.

The fact that Garner was black also contributed to the media’s tendency to blame him and exonerate the police. As report co-author David Perry explained to me, "Oppressive forces intersect. We don't have to address all of them all the time, but we have to be aware that as we zero in on one or the other issue, they aren't operating in isolation. Racism and ableism are bad enough on their own, appearing both in structural and individual ways, and reflecting state power. When they combine, individuals become multiply marginalized and doubly endangered."

The interaction of racism and ableism is complex and powerful. Racism can exacerbate, or cause disability, which in turn becomes (as with Eric Garner) an excuse for racist violence. Perry points out that lead poisoning—as illustrated by Flint—is much more likely in poor communities, which are disproportionately black. PTSD from trauma is also more likely among poor children. "Any disabilities related to diet, lack of access to medical care, clean air, clean water, and so forth, correlate with poverty," Perry told me.

Taking these intersections seriously is vital because ignoring them obscures the nature of discrimination and makes it hard to formulate solutions. In a January post, Matt Bruenig at Demos noted that poverty rates for disabled adults are strikingly high; fully one third live in poverty based on disposable income, and disabled adults make up more than a quarter of people in poverty, despite being only about 10 percent of all adults. Disability also affects the family members of the disabled. Twenty-eight percent of America’s poor live in a family with a disabled member. That disability is so central to poverty suggests that many standard methods of fighting the problem—raising the minimum wage, job training programs—are insufficient. If many of the poor have disabilities that limit their ability to work full time, anti-poverty methods focused on jobs and employment won't help them.

Similarly, the fact that police use of force often involves people with disabilities has important policy implications. Elected officials have responded to police brutality complaints with calls for more police body cameras. However, disabilities are not always immediately visible, and people with disabilities can seem to act erratically or in unexpected ways. The white paper reports on the case of John Williams, a First Nation woodcarver, who was shot by Officer Ian Birk in Seattle in 2010 after failing to respond to verbal commands. Williams was deaf, so could not hear what Birk said. He was also an alcoholic, and was legally drunk when approached.

The facts here were not in dispute; a video would not have added information. Everyone agrees that, as the white paper describes, "a police officer approached from behind a hard-of-hearing person walking peacefully down the street, gave verbal commands, and then shot him to death." But Williams' disability was framed as a way of shifting responsibility away from the officer. The Seattle Times headline, "Police-shooting victim 'struggled with a lot of things'" locates the fault in Williams, rather than the officer who shot him. Birk was fired from the department, but never prosecuted. If disability is visible only as an excuse or justification, cameras will be useless. Which perhaps helps to explain why the video footage of Eric Garner's death did not result in an indictment.

One way in which police departments attempt to address disability issues is through sensitivity training. But as the white paper points out, there has been little evaluation of whether this training is effective in actually reducing deaths or use-of-force incidents. Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Foundation, told me, "The situation, as it is right now, overall is not working. I think what we're calling for in the end is for the disabled community to have more of a role in working with the police in order to determine what training is needed in order to sensitize the police to the needs of people with disabilities."

Training, however, shouldn't necessarily be focused on having the police single out those with disabilities. "We need to be careful not to stigmatize, and say that people with disabilities need to be treated differently. Ultimately what the whole disability rights movement is about is being treated the same way as everyone else," Ruderman said.

People with disabilities may exhibit delayed compliance with police directives. They may also be more susceptible to injury or death when police use violence against them. Some might argue that this makes disabled people different from others. But it doesn't. After all, non-disabled people sometimes react erratically, and like disabled people, non-disabled people can also be injured or killed. Advocates aren’t calling for special police treatment of the disabled, but for recognition of their existence—and that acknowledgment should inform police best practices for everyone.

Add to that the benefit of recognizing that different people are different. The existence of disabled people is, or should be, a reminder that the person police are stopping is in fact a human being, not an automaton who can (or should) respond with instant obedience and competence to any and every command. An awareness of disability is essential if every black life is going to matter, and if we want a society in which police protect and serve, rather than kill.

Noah edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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