Police Violence Against People With Disabilities Should Provoke More Outrage

By Michael Nam


As violent and racist policing practices towards the Black community have sparked a national dialog, persons with disabilities have been pressing for that conversation to include their underrepresented communities as well.

The issue came to the forefront with a recent Supreme Court ruling that granted two officers immunity for entering the San Francisco group home where Teresa Sheehan resided and shooting her five times when she threatened them with a knife. Sheehan had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and while the Supreme Court concluded the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment, the question of whether or not the Americans With Disabilities Act applied to the situation was left as a question to return to the lower courts, according to ABC7 News in San Francisco.

Jay Ruderman and Jo Ann Simons, advocates for people with disabilities, wrote an op-ed for The Hill expressing their concern over the relative silence about police treatment of the disabled. Discussing the cases of Ethan Saylor, a young man with Down Syndrome asphyxiated by police for not leaving a movie theater; and James Boyd, a homeless man with schizophrenia shot in the back during a standoff with police, Ruderman and Simons decried the lack of wider coverage:

To be sure, stories about Ethan and James, as well asothersinvolving people with disabilities, sometimes result in a spate of media coverage for a time, some localized protest and investigations by federal authorities. But they hardly trigger the national outrage they deserve.

One might argue that the examples given of Sheehan, Saylor and Boyd lack some of the horrifying visuals of videos and pictures of incidents that involved the likes of Eric Garner, Walter Scott or Freddie Gray, but those examples do exist.

In 2010, Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk shot and killed John T. Williams, who was carrying a legal pocket knife. It is likely he was unable to clearly make out the officer’s demands because he was deaf in one ear. Partial video shows the lead up to the incident and the sound of shots fired captured off-screen:

In 2014, Dallas police responded to a call from the mother of Jason Harrison, a 38-year-old man suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia who was holding a screwdriver. The rapid escalation of the incident by the police was captured on body cam:

The case of Harrison, a Black man with mental illness, also shows the intersection of race and disability, as studies have shown how Black men and boys are often considered more threatening than their white counterparts.

Even Freddie Gray, a young man at the center of Baltimore’s recent uprising against police brutality, may have suffered developmental disabilities from years of exposure to lead paint.

The ACLU, in their amicus brief to the Supreme Court during the Sheehan case, describes persons with disabilities and the kind of danger they may face during police encounters:

Persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, who sometimes are perceived by police as uncooperative or when handcuffed are unable to use sign language to communicate

  • Persons with epilepsy or cerebral palsy, who are sometimes assumed by police to have taken drugs or become intoxicated

  • Persons with autism or Asperger’s, who might repeat police officers’ statements or be unable to maintain eye contact, which police might construe as uncooperative or hostile behavior

  • Persons with intellectual or psychiatric difficulties, who are “often shot or beaten when they cannot follow the orders of police officers”

The ACLU, Ruderman and Simons all advocate for better-trained police to accommodate the complicated issues surrounding a police encounter with a person who has a disability in line with the Americans With Disabilities Act. “One hopes that, as Ruderman and Simons warn against, we don’t ‘wait for the next casualty’ for this necessary national conversation to start,” writes Rick Cohen for Nonprofit Quarterly.

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