PERSPECTIVES | Disability, race, and police shootings

Navigator Prescpectives logo
Grey INCLUDEnyc Logo
Blue Line
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
• • •

A third to a half of people killed by police officers have disabilities, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, and Ronnie Cohen of Reuters Health stated that juveniles and young adults with disabilities are 13 percent more likely to be arrested than those without.

“More than half of blacks in the U.S. with disabilities will be arrested by the time they reach their late 20s,” Cohen wrote, adding that “more than 46 percent of Hispanics with disabilities could expect to be arrested as children or young adults.”

Officers in Crown Heights shot and killed Saheed Vassell, who was black, when he pointed a metal pipe in their direction earlier this month. The responding officers did not know he had a mental illness, nor that the pipe was not a gun, but local residents and community police officers did.  “He didn’t need to be gunned down,” said Jay Locke in an article in the New York Times. “The police know he has a mental disability.”

“In New York, as in cities across the country, armed law enforcement are de-facto first responders in a psychiatric emergency, and this has long resulted in people—especially people of color—ending up dead," according to Sonja Sharp of Vice. “While almost half of all people killed by police may have a disability, those charged with helping them in crisis sometimes receive little or no significant training.”

Failure to uphold the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has played a role in these incidents, according to Steve Silberman of the New York Times. “[The ADA] requires the government to provide ‘effective communication,’ ‘reasonable accommodation’ and equal access to services for all disabled people….[but] laws like the ADA can’t mandate empathy, and...a pervasive lack of empathy for people with disabilities is one of the most serious challenges that we face as a society.”

The intersection of race and disability is a complex matter, and both must be taken into account when speaking about police actions. “When we leave disability out of the conversation or only consider it as an individual medical problem, we miss the ways in which disability intersects with other factors that often lead to police violence,” the Ruderman Family Foundation continued. “Conversely, when we include disability at the intersection of parallel social issues, we come to understand the issues better, and new solutions emerge.”