by Dale Chappell
Because police are trained to shoot first and ask questions later, calling on them to defuse a situation involving someone with special needs should be a last resort. The problem is that when cops are trained to be military warriors instead of peace officers, we’re all viewed as potential threats, constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead explained.
According to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, “disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention.” The study further found that many “more disabled civilians experience non-lethal violence and abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers.”
Whitehead pointed out that over a six-month period, police shot and killed someone experiencing a mental health crisis every 36 hours. His advice? Don’t call the cops if you are autistic, hearing impaired, mentally ill, elderly, suffer from dementia, or disabled in any way that might hinder your ability to understand (and immediately comply with) the cops. He provided several recent examples of the mortal danger posed by police responding to calls involving persons with disabilities.
Police in Oklahoma shot and killed a deaf man standing on his front porch and holding a two-foot metal pipe to fend off stray dogs. Though bystanders told police the man was deaf and could not hear their orders to drop the pipe and get on the ground, police shot the man.
Officers in Maryland killed a man with Down syndrome and low IQ after he refused to leave the movie theater because he wanted to watch the movie again. Responding officers used extreme force to physically eject him from the premises. Autopsy results showed he died from asphyxia, likely from a chokehold.
In Florida, police armed with assault rifles shot at a 27-year-old autistic man who was sitting on the ground playing with his toy truck. The trigger-happy cops missed this literal sitting target and instead hit the autistic man’s behavioral therapist, who was trying to get the man back to his group home. Cops left the therapist face down on the ground, handcuffed and bleeding, for 20 minutes.
Police in Texas handcuffed, Tased, and used a baton to subdue a 7-year-old with severe ADHD and a mood disorder after school officials called police when the boy began hitting his head on a wall.
“Freeze or I’ll shoot” tactics do not work with some disabled people, Whitehead noted. Hundreds—if not thousands—of incidents go undocumented every year. We have a “crisis” when it comes to law enforcement’s failure to adequately assess, de-escalate, and manage encounters with special needs people.
Better police training on de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention is needed. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health (“NIMH”) found that police crisis intervention teams “made fewer arrests, used less force, and connected more people with mental-health services than their non-trained peers.” A tactic as simple as slowing down confrontations, instead of ramping up the tension and noise, works to help de-escalate encounters with disabled people, NIMH found.
Since the death of the man with Down syndrome in the Maryland movie theater, new police recruits are now required to take a four-hour course to learn “de-escalation tactics” for dealing with disabled citizens. They are taught to speak calmly, give space, and be patient. Similarly, LAPD’s “mental response teams” try to slow things down and persuade the disabled person to come with them, rather than rushing to take the person into custody by any means necessary.
Whitehead observed, “While we need to make encounters with police officers safer for people with disabilities, what we really need is to make encounters with police safer for citizens across the board, no matter how they’re packaged.”
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