Time to Include the Disability Community in News Conversations on Police Brutality

Black Lives Matter protesters argue with a man during a protest in Atlanta after the police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C. (Branden Camp / AP)

What did Keith Lamont Scott, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald and Freddie Gray have in common? If your answer is that they are African-Americans who died in police custody, then you are partially correct.

What is less known is that each of these individuals had a disability.

They represent only a few of the highly publicized incidences of police brutality involving African-Americans with disabilities.

READ: Police Killings Won’t Stop

A recent report by the Ruderman Family Foundation indicates that as many as half of the people who are killed by police are individuals with disabilities. Disability-related police killings are not limited to African-Americans. For example, Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old Caucasian man with Down syndrome, died of asphyxiation while being dragged from a movie theater by three officers because he wouldn’t leave the theater after the film ended. Daniel Harris, a 29-year-old, unarmed, deaf man, was fatally shot in Charlotte, N.C., after being pulled over for a traffic violation.

If half of police killings involve disability, why is so little attention paid to the issue of disability in our media coverage? Is it due to a lack of education in the media on disability? Is it due to prejudice within the news media?

Disability forms its own culture, and it crosses all races, but few news sources include members of this community in the conversations on police brutality. Does our opinion-driven coverage fall short of providing information that would help the most vulnerable members of minority cultures? Are the pundits not aware of this failing? Or do they fear that disability would detract from the racial issues? If so, they may not be helping the most vulnerable members of the African-American community, those with disabilities.

Scott, who was also shot in Charlotte, N.C., had sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Traumatic brain injuries can result in personality changes, including erratic and aggressive behavior. His wife, Rakeyia Scott, told the police that Scott had a TBI, but did the police even know what that meant? Would they have approached this man differently? Could they have altered their approach once the TBI was mentioned?

Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman who was found hanged in a Texas jail cell following a minor traffic incident, reported to police that she suffered from epilepsy and depression. At intake, she indicated that she had made a suicide attempt within the last two years. The fact that Bland reported that she had epilepsy, depression, and that she had made a suicide attempt should have prompted an evaluation from a mental health specialist. Why was a plastic lining in her jail cell’s garbage can? Plastic linings could be used to suffocate oneself or someone else, and, in this case, to form a noose.

It is also reported that Freddie Gray had sustained neurological damage from lead poisoning, which is most commonly found in low-income neighborhoods, particularly impoverished African-American neighborhoods.

Are police sufficiently trained to triage these issues of mental health? According to an MSNBC report, in 2003 a Bureau of Justice Statistics study showed that 83 percent of all U.S. police departments require a high school diploma, but only 8 percent require a four-year college degree. In 2010, Police Quarterly revealed that officers with some college education are less likely to resort to force (56 percent of the time) than those who have never attended college (68 percent of the time). How could police officers with a high school education be expected to triage severe mental disorders?

Most professionals in mental health have masters degrees at a minimum. Some communities, such as Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, employ a Mobile Crisis Unit (MCU), which includes mental health professionals who triage potentially dangerous situations involving people with mentally illness. MCU members are expected to call for police backup if a weapon is involved. This begs the question of whether we need more mental health specialists working with police, or more police who are trained in mental health issues. Either way, we need more awareness in our communities, and that begins with the information that is put out by the news media.

As for the television coverage on police brutality: When will experts from the disability community finally be included in the conversations? While stories of police brutality are jamming our airwaves, our lack of understanding about that situation remains appalling.

Eileen Cronin
Eileen Cronin is a writer and Truthdig contributor. Her memoir, "Mermaid," published by WW Norton in 2014 and translated into three foreign languages, was one of O Magazine’s Best Memoirs of the Year.…
Eileen Cronin

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