OPED: People with disabilities often victims of police violence

Tribune News Service

People with disabilities are very much at risk of being harmed or killed when encountering police.

FILE -In this Monday, April 27, 2015 file photo, Mourners view the body of Freddie Gray before his funeral at New Shiloh Baptist Church, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. With a city so deeply divided, the stakes for the police, the politicians and the public at the first officer's trial, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, are high.

In fact, a recently released white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation and titled "Disability: The Missing Word When We Talk about Policing and Violence," estimates that disabled people make up a third to a half of all people killed by law enforcement officers.

This is what happens when police don't know or care that they are dealing with disabled people, or when their perceptions of disability are clouded by ignorance.

Consider the case of Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome and an IQ of 40 who was killed in 2013 by off-duty officer moonlighting as mall security in Frederick, Md. Police were dispatched to remove Saylor from a theater after he insisted on seeing a movie for a second time without buying another ticket. Police used such force attempting to subdue and remove Saylor that his larynx was crushed and he died.

In 2010, John Williams, a Native American man who was hard of hearing and worked as a woodcarver, crossed a Seattle street. He was carrying a knife and a block of wood. A city policeman exited his vehicle with his gun drawn and ordered Williams to drop the knife. Williams didn't comply and, within seconds, the officer shot him dead.

Several instances of police killing people with psychiatric disabilities who were feeling distraught or agitated have also received a degree of media attention. But the white paper says it's difficult to know when disabled people are killed or injured by police unless their stories are reported in the media because there is no requirement that any such statistics be kept by law enforcement agencies.

The white paper also points out the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention are also people with disabilities, including Eric Garner (multiple health issues), Freddie Gray (history of lead poisoning) and Sandra Bland (depression). But the media often misses or downplays the significance of this aspect of the victims' lives and how it may have escalated the fatal encounter.

"When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms," the white paper says.

The problem is bigger than that. Those who seek to hold the police accountable for their actions must also better understand and defend the lives of people with disabilities. As the white paper puts it, "The needs of disabled people aren't special. There is nothing special about not wanting to be shot."

— Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago.