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Police Violence and People with Disabilities

Published: 2013/09/01 - Updated: 2021/08/29
Author: Thomas C. Weiss - Contact: Disabled World (
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Synopsis: Article looks at police violence in relation to people with disability in particular those who experience forms of developmental or mental disabilities. People who experience forms of developmental or mental disabilities are often times doubly targeted by police violence due to high rates of poverty and homelessness. To be plain, very little information is collected on a national level concerning police injuring and killing of people with disabilities. Police departments either do not collect, or are reluctant to collect, this kind of information.

Main Digest

When a person with disabilities, or anyone else for that matter, calls the police seeking assistance they expect to receive help. Sadly, people with disabilities and their family members or friends do not always receive the help they expected to. In fact, they may receive something that is quite the opposite.


For example, police officers are charged with the murder of a man who experienced Down syndrome after he was arrested for attempting to watch a double feature. The young man was asphyxiated while in police custody. Robert Saylor did not want to leave a movie theater and employees called the police department for assistance. The police did not stop to learn from Saylor's aide that he had Down syndrome; instead - they handcuffed him and then restrained him on the ground where he died from asphyxiation.

The case has been ruled to be a homicide and has caused a great amount of outrage and fear among parents and allies of people with developmental disabilities, as well as among people with forms of mental illnesses. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time the police have badly handled interactions with people with disabilities. The Center for Public Representation states there are, 'significant patterns in police killings of people with psychiatric disabilities.'

A 15 year old child with autism was tasered by police in the state of Iowa in Johnston.

The police used a stun gun several times against the child. Use of tasers against people with developmental disabilities or people with forms of mental illnesses is actually common. After a year-long investigation of the Portland police department, it was found that tasers are often times used and abused, in particular against people with developmental disabilities or people with mental illness. The Seattle Times stated, 'The investigation singled out stun-gun use, saying officers frequently discharged them without justification or used them too many times on a given suspect.'

In the city of Toronto in the year 2011, police officers killed a 45 year old man who was mute because he was not answering their questions.

Charlie McGillivary had experienced brain injuries that found him unable to speak, yet the police officers did not bother to take the time to listen to the protests of his mother before they tackled him on the street. The police officers held him down and beat Charlie until he went into distress; he died shortly after being taken to the hospital. Doctors suspected that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage from being beaten by a police officer's baton.

In another incident of police violence, one in the city of Houston, Texas, police officers responded to a call at a mental hospital concerning a man named Brian Claunch.

Brian was acting aggressively and was both mentally and physically disabled, he had lost an arm and a leg in a train accident and experienced bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Brian used a wheelchair and was medicated and to be plain, could not have been too much of an imminent threat towards trained police officers. It did not stop one police officer from shooting Brian in the head and killing him instantly like some Nazi Officer. When the police officer was asked about the use of deadly force, the officer explained that Brian had been holding something in his hands - that object turned out to be a pen.

People who experience forms of developmental or mental disabilities are often times doubly targeted by police violence due to high rates of poverty and homelessness. The brutal murder of a homeless man with schizophrenia in Fullerton, California presents what happens when homelessness, mental illness, and police brutality meet. Kelly Thomas was sleeping on the streets when he was murdered; he was approached by six police officers in July of 2011.

People who are homeless often face police harassment and unwarranted arrests. When Kelly allegedly refused to comply with his arrest two police officers held him down while four more police officers took turns beating him with their batons and stunning him with tasers for eight minutes. The beating left Kelly comatose and disfigured - he died less than a week afterward.

September of 2011 found Miami police officers murdering 57 year old Ernest Vassell after he refused to give them his toy gun. Ernest experienced autism and lived with his family in their neighborhood, yet when the police saw him walking down the street with a toy rifle they started shouting at him to put down the, 'weapon.' Ernest was scared and confused by the police officers and hesitated just long enough for those police officers to shoot and kill him.

To be plain, very little information is collected on a national level concerning police injuring and killing of people with disabilities. The problem comes from a larger failure to gather information on a national basis about police injuring and killing civilians as a whole. Police departments either do not collect, or are reluctant to collect, this kind of information. Reports of police injuring and killing civilians are scattered and imprecise.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed 6,000 people and based on extrapolations of the information estimated that around 500,000 people every year are, 'hit, held, pushed, choked, threatened with a flashlight, threatened or sprayed with pepper spray, threatened with a gun or other form of force,' by police. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports states that around 300, 'justified homicides,' happen every year, yet does not record police killings considered to be unjustified.

In the introduction to, 'Stolen Lives,' it is noted, 'many police killings result from 911 calls for help. A mother or father in a family crisis had no expectation when they dialed 911 that their overwrought or suicidal child would be killed by the very agency they called for help. Many victims had no idea they were being confronted by law enforcement agents when plainclothes or undercover police stormed into their homes or communities.'

A number of shooting deaths appear to involve people who were suicidal. There are two distinct patterns in these situations that should not be confused. The first on is, 'suicide by cop,' and involves a person who is suicidal that points a weapon (many times unloaded) at a police officer with the intention of getting the police officer to shoot them. Often times the person with ask or even beg the police officer to shoot them, or a suicide note will make it clear what the person intended.

The second pattern involves people who are suicidal that are killed by police yet have not threatened the police. In one instance, a person said he was suicidal and took 18 pills. They do involve a person who is clearly deeply distressed, at times has a weapon that is usually aimed at themselves or no one in particular. The presence of a weapon; however, is an important component in why many people have been killed by police officers - even if they were shot while wielding things such as bottles, shovels, scissors, or brooms.

In many instances, police officers who kill or injure people with psychiatric disabilities do not act alone, they are in the company of other police officers. Courts have held that police officers in certain circumstances have a duty to intervene and protect people from excessive force by other police officers. Yet in order to prevail in a failure to protect case, the plaintiff must first establish that the police treatment was a violation from which they had the right to be protected.

Author Credentials:

Thomas C. Weiss is a researcher and editor for Disabled World. Thomas attended college and university courses earning a Masters, Bachelors and two Associate degrees, as well as pursing Disability Studies. As a Nursing Assistant Thomas has assisted people from a variety of racial, religious, gender, class, and age groups by providing care for people with all forms of disabilities from Multiple Sclerosis to Parkinson's; para and quadriplegia to Spina Bifida.

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Cite This Page (APA): Thomas C. Weiss. (2013, September 1). Police Violence and People with Disabilities. Disabled World. Retrieved September 30, 2023 from

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