Police and Disability, Again (Still)

The City of Portland (Oregon, not Maine) has been struggling over the last few years with an epidemic of police shootings of mentally ill people so severe that it’s radically restructuring itself in an attempt to address the issue. The fact that Portland, widely regarded as a very crunchy, granola, hipster kind of place, is struggling with this problem illustrates how deep-seated issues with law enforcement and mental health are in the United States. This is a country where law enforcement are often first responders to people in mental health crisis due to service cuts, where mental health crises are more common due to those cuts, and where this combination of factors often proves fatal.

I used to maintain a Google Alert for police shootings of mentally ill people, but I had to stop, because it was too depressing to open my inbox in the mornings to the tide of stories; new stories about new victims, many unarmed, sometimes running from police or not complying with commands because they were confused and unable to process the information being thrown at them. Old stories about old victims, police forces exonerated, victims dragged through the mud after the fact, tearful family members wondering what would have happened if. Stories about police forces struggling to keep up with mental health issues in their community in the wake of yet another shooting or standoff.

I often remind people—’til I’m blue in the face, it seems like—that it’s more dangerous to be mentally ill than it is to be around a person with mental illness. Mentally ill people are rarely violent, and yet, they’re frequently victims, particularly of law enforcement. Many officers have little to no mental health training and don’t know how to interact with someone who is experiencing a psychiatric crisis, and police are trained to quickly assess situations and react to them promptly in the interest of efficiency, of saving lives, of ensuring that a wrong judgment doesn’t result in the death of an innocent bystander or the member of the force.

Mentally ill people, under that rubric, are viewed as a threat because mental illness is associated with violence, and the same holds true for people with certain other disabilities, such as D/deaf people who don’t understand spoken commands, or autistics and people with other cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities who may not move in normative ways, who may have trouble with speech. When an autistic flaps her arms because someone is yelling at her, it’s not a threat, it’s a form of communication and personal expression; maybe she’s confused, or frightened, or upset because someone in a uniform is yelling at her and she doesn’t know what to do. Yet, her physical response is viewed as ‘dangerous’ and she’s shot to death.

The use of deadly force by police officers is justified on the grounds that it can preemptively deescalate situations, but in the case of handling disabled people, it’s clearly not appropriate. In an ideal world, one with humanity and justice for disabled people, law enforcement officers wouldn’t be having regular encounters with disabled people in crisis, but that’s not the case right now. Restoring the services that have been cut and painstakingly reassembling the systems that once provided a network of support for disabled people will take years, and these are years that people living right now do not have.

Particularly those who teeter on the edge of crisis as a result of their lack of services. The large disabled and homeless population, mentally ill people turning to substance abuse as a form of self-medication because they cannot access treatment, youth struggling with the onset of mental illness in a climate that is extremely hostile to children and young adults who experience violent outbursts, mood swings, and other behavioural changes. For them, help is needed now, not later and in a distant future where everyone owns a rainbow-plated unicorn that shits gold nuggets.

And that leaves law enforcement on the front line, with no training. A handful of cities are starting to acknowledge that and they’re thinking about how to make their police forces and other agencies more nimble, agile, and able to respond to these situations, and we need a whole lot more of that in the United States. We need disability advocates working directly with police forces to help them understand what happens in interactions with disabled people, how they go wrong, and how to stop that from happening. A simple acknowledgement that situations involving law enforcement can be high-stress is important, as is a focus on how such situations create sensory overload, which can push someone to do things that might be perceived as dangerous or noncompliant.

When someone hears an order and covers her ears or hunches down instead of doing what she was told, this may not be a willful action or a gesture of defiance. It might be rooted in fear, or stress at the volume of the noise and the chaos of the situation; police officers everywhere, bright lights, a crowd of people, and numerous other stimuli. Her gesture towards the inside of her coat or her waist may not be a grab for a weapon, but an attempt to stim, to calm down, or even to reach for an object she uses when she’s experiencing stress and needs something to focus on.

The reactive training of US law enforcement is proving fatal for disabled people across the country, and the lack of general interest in the subject is troubling. In cities with pilot programmes to train law enforcement officers and pair them with people who have experience in this area, many citizens aren’t even aware of it. And in others, there’s a strong resistance to the idea that if police officers are going to be turned into all-purpose first responders, they need adequate training to do that. That speaks to deeper social attitudes about the value of disabled lives in the United States.