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Police Need Better Training to Encounter People With Disabilities

The problem is that what might look like noncompliance can be something else entirely. 

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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In a period of less than one week, Americans have witnessed yet again the increasingly familiar spectacle of police shootings. First, Georgia Tech student Scout Schultz was shot by a university police officer. Days later in Oklahoma City, Magdiel Sanchez died after two police officers shot him in his front yard.

These tragedies share a common thread that demands attention: Both victims were individuals with disabilities who died during police encounters.

Their deaths may have been prevented with more specialized training and better education for law enforcement.

Disability plays a central role in a surprising number of police shootings, yet it often remains overlooked. Scout Schultz was shot during a mental health crisis, as was Seattle’s Charleena Lyles. Magdiel Sanchez was deaf. Freddie Gray suffered the effects of ongoing lead exposure during childhood. Chicago teenager Stephon Watts had Asperger’s. Robert Ethan Saylor had Down syndrome. And then there’s Charles Kinsey, the behavioral therapist shot while trying to help Arnaldo Rios-Soto, who has autism and was under his care. The later officer admitted he had been aiming at Rios-Soto.

This follows broader national trends that are known yet not widely discussed. A 2016 report by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that up to half of the people killed by police in the U.S. have a disability.

As an anthropologist who studies disability in the U.S., I believe that disability is an overlooked part of diversity. While society becomes increasingly comfortable discussing topics like race and gender, disability is mistakenly thought of as a health issue and not a key facet of diversity.

The situation is also complicated by confusion regarding what counts as a disability. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the umbrella category of disability can include people with intellectual, developmental, sensory and physical disabilities, as well as mental illness and related psychological conditions. In turn, the term refers to an incredibly diverse population, including many people with invisible disabilities that are not discernible to the naked eye.

In the interim between the shootings of Schultz and Sanchez, journalist Steve Silberman penned an impassioned piece in The New York Times calling for increased police attention to and training on autism. He emphasized that the behaviors associated with autism are often impossible to spot from a distance, and that there is potentially overwhelming stress among people on the spectrum when confronted by police sirens, shouting, or the expectation of eye contact. He also highlighted some innovative programs within law enforcement to build awareness among officers about neurodiversity.

Although this is a critical step in furthering discussions and public awareness, there is no doubt that the crisis of disability and police violence transcends a particular diagnosis. More must be done to address all forms of disability.

In the case of Scout Schultz, the officer who shot him had not attended the intensive — but optional — trainings for law enforcement officials on mental illness. Days later, Magdiel Sanchez was shot halfway across the country after he appeared to ignore police orders, despite his neighbors’ shouting that he was deaf and could not hear. The officers assumed he was noncompliant and dangerous.

The problem is that what might look like noncompliance can be something else entirely, as we saw in the case of Sanchez. Because certain responses or behaviors connected to a person’s disability might be mistaken for defiance, there must be an alternative to using lethal force. There has been growing attention to this in recent years, with innovative initiatives such as the Pathways to Justice program of The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. Similar initiatives have provided targeted trainings for officers about deafness and autism.

The recent tragedies are part of a pattern that shows the urgent need for improved and mandatory police training on disability. Education and outreach on disability issues must be part of standard law enforcement training across the country. Without implementing this necessary change, our law enforcement officers will continue to be placed in situations that they have not been equipped to handle. And the instances that we have recently seen will only continue to happen.

Elizabeth Lewis is the project manager for the Texas Center for Disability Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. 

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News and the Austin American Statesman.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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