Talking intersections with race, disability, and police violence

Police violence is in the news now more than ever before, but there’s one aspect that isn’t being widely explored: Police violence against disabled people. A newly released report from the Ruderman Foundation highlights the scope of the problem, finding through a review of news reporting that nearly half of police deaths involved disability.

When the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri forced the topic of police violence into the headlines in 2014 and added momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement, just a few miles away, Kajieme Powell, a mentally ill black man, was shot to death by police in an ‘execution style’ killing. The next year, Sandra Bland, who had a history of depression and epilepsy, was found dead in her cell in what was ruled a suicide. After his death in police custody earned national attention, it was revealed that Freddie Gray may have experienced neurological problems as a result of lead poisoning.

The Ruderman report drives home the need to make connections about the intersection of race and disability when it comes to police violence. More than a thousand people are shot in the United States by police annually, estimates The Guardian. But according to researchers David M. Perry and Lawrence Carter-Long, who prepared the Ruderman report, at least half of these deaths or excessive force encounters also involved disabilities — with considerable racialised overlaps. Since there’s no mandate to track disabilities among individuals who have suffered from violent encounters with law enforcement, the true scope of these deaths is uncertain.

The work grew, Perry says, out of the finding that there were limited resources available on disability and police violence after the death of Ethan Saylor, an event that proved mobilizing for some white disability activists who suddenly realized that police violence applied to them too. Saylor, 26, was killed by police after he refused to leave a movie theater — he had Down Syndrome, and appeared to be confused and upset by their orders. Officers used a chokehold similar to that that killed Eric Garner, crushing Saylor’s larynx. ‘Race was a big part of it,’ said Perry in a conversation with me. ‘He was white, suburban, middle class,’ exactly the sort of disabled person many people thought of as safe, and the media exploded, as did the Internet, Perry found — the case generated ‘so much media and online activism.’

There are inescapable overlaps between race and disability, finds the Ruderman report. People of colour, especially members of the Black community, are more likely to be disabled, according to the Disability Rights Education and Legal Defense Fund, and also have difficulty accessing health care, according to the Ohio Disability Education Program, which exacerbates the severity of their impairments. There are a number of reasons why people of colour are more likely to be disabled. One is environmental racism, something the National Resources Defense Council identifies as an ongoing issue in communities of colour: Polluting industries and sites are more likely to be located in communities of colour. Exposure to pollutants in utero or early childhood can have lasting physiological effects. One glaring example is playing out in Flint, Michigan, where a water source contaminated with lead is causing permanent neurological impairments in children, CNN reports.

Another issue is racism itself, which has been identified as an environmental stressor, as for example in a literature review published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2002, which linked racism to mental health conditions; in a sense, racism could be viewed as a public health menace. In another instance, a New York Times review of education statistics found that when students acted out in school, white students tended to receive evaluation for learning disabilities, while students of colour were more likely to be suspended — leaving possible underlying disabilities unidentified. Overall, the U.S. Census found that approximately 17.4 percent of the white population in 2010 was disabled, in contrast with 22 percent of the Black community, illustrating the racial disparity at work.

The ACLU notes that racial profiling continues to be a persistent issue in policing. So what happens when someone is both a person of colour and disabled?

D/deaf people may not hear or understand orders, mentally ill people may be confused or distressed, and people with developmental, intellectual, and cognitive disabilities may behave in ways that don’t make sense to police officers who are unfamiliar with those disabilities. An autistic person may struggle to comply with police orders or panic and appear to be resisting arrest. A schizophrenic person experiencing a break with reality who is convinced that she’s the target of conspiracy theories may become upset and be seen by police as a threat. Preconceptions of ‘people of colour’ may be exacerbated by the seemingly ‘abnormal,’ ‘disruptive,’ or ‘non-compliant’ responses of people with disabilities, sometimes leading to fatal outcomes. ‘Distraught people,’ the Washington Post put it in a headline, ‘deadly results.’

Understanding that a profound interaction between race and disability influences police responses is critical to successfully reducing overly-aggressive law enforcement tactics. Disabilities need to play a prominent role in discussions about better law enforcement training to cut down violent interactions. If we fail to include this facet of violence, we miss an important part of the picture. And specifically, disabled people of colour straddle a very dangerous social divide that puts them at extreme risk of the consequences of both racism and disablism.

Yet, Perry and Carter-Long found that when disability is mentioned, it’s usually brought up in the context of blaming the victim, adding a pity factor or reinforcing preconceptions instead of improving law enforcement sensitivity. Even more problematic, when there is any discussion about police and disabled targets, it almost exclusively arises with white victims, like when 17-year-old Kristiana Coignard was shot to death in 2015. The Texas teen had bipolar disorder, and her story was used to highlight the need for better police training on mental illness.

Disabled people of colour are already working on the intersections of police violence and fighting for justice in their community, but the white disability community must work to join them, as the movement is heavily dominated by white people, who also tend to shape the direction of conversations despite the work of disability activists from communities of colour. That’s going to require a mix of racial justice education and a willingness to learn about the experience of disability from the perspective of people of colour. The mainstream image of disability is often white, male, and mobility impaired, but that’s not the reality — and until we can upset that image, it will be difficult to incorporate the intersection of disability and race into the ongoing discussion about how to put a permanent stop to police violence.

Image: Stop Police Brutality, ep_jhu, Flickr