How to Make Interactions Between Police and Disabled People Safer

Stanley Gibson, a mentally ill veteran, was shot by police during an altercation in 2011. This summer, Dainell Simmons, a resident at a long-term care facility, died after being shot with a stun gun.

In 2012, Houston police shot a double amputee for “threatening” them with an object that ended up being a pen. Encounters between disabled people and law enforcement often go poorly, commonly due to a lack of police training.

For decades, disability rights activists and disability organizations have been frustrated by the lack of communication between the disability community and the law enforcement community, and the sometimes tragic consequences that have resulted. Disabled people are more likely to be shot and abused by police officers than nondisabled people. Lack of understanding about disability-specific issues creates problems in court, during arrests, in prisons and jails, in mediation, and in almost every imaginable aspect of the justice system.

All of that is finally about to change, thanks to an almost half million dollar grant from the Department of Justice, which has remained extremely committed to disability issues under President Barack Obama. The grant establishes a national center that will operate as a location for outreach, education, resources and more, creating a bridge between the developmental disability community and law enforcement. With the hard work of parties from both communities, the goal is to reduce the risk of disability-police interactions gone bad, creating a safer environment for everyone.

For example, officers can receive training in interacting with intellectually disabled people and people with cognitive disabilities, both of whom might have trouble comprehending and following commands from law enforcement. Experts will be available to provide consulting and advice, along with victim advocates to help disabled people trapped in the legal system who need help navigating the process of going to court. It’s am ambitious project, but the DOJ grant combined with support from partner organizations should get it started and keep it afloat until it can support itself.

While this particular initiative is focused on developmental disabilities, in the wake of the pointless death of Robert Saylor at the hands of police last year, many of the available resources are also applicable to other disabilities, and could help police expand their understanding when it comes to interacting with D/deaf people, mentally ill people, and others — for example, some developmentally disabled people use wheelchairs for mobility and rely on ventilators, and police need to learn how to safely handle them to reduce the risk of injuries and death during protests and other events. That same training will apply to all wheelchair users, not just those with developmental disabilities.

The new center should also serve as a model for other programs; hopefully it will expand over time to encompass more disability advocates and organizations, and the nature of the training and resources provided will grow too. On a local level, groups looking to address tense relations between disabled people and law enforcement could work with the center to create teaching tools, resources and other means of bridging communication gaps and addressing complex concerns.

This initiative is a positive sign, and the result of a great deal of hard work. It’s also a reminder of the many great things the Justice Department has done for the disability community as well as other marginalized groups in American society since 2008, when President Obama took office and refocused the agency’s mission on ensuring that “liberty and justice for all” are more than just rote words pledged by schoolchildren in classrooms across the country every morning.

Photo credit: Army Medicine.