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U.S. Police Officers and People with Disabilities

Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2015-10-20 : (Rev. 2020-04-19)

Synopsis and Key Points:

Article examines common issues people with disabilities have with police, includes disability rights and recent encounters.

Police officers are seemingly threatened by almost anything, even a person reaching for their cane, with results that are cruel or even fatal.

Unexpected actions on the parts of some people with disabilities might be misconstrued by police officers or deputies as suspicious, uncooperative behavior, or illegal activity.

Main Digest

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a Federal civil rights law. The ADA gives Federal civil rights protections to people with disabilities similar to those provided to people on the basis of color, race, national origin, gender, religion and age. It guarantees equal opportunity for people with disabilities in State and local government services, employment, public accommodations, telecommunications and transportation.

A police force is defined as a constituted body of persons empowered by the state to enforce the law, protect property, and limit civil disorder. Police powers include the legitimized use of force. The term is most commonly associated with police services of a sovereign state that are authorized to exercise the police power of that state within a defined legal or territorial area of responsibility. In many countries, particularly those with a federal system of government, there may be several police or police like organizations, each serving different levels of government and enforcing different subsets of the applicable law. The United States has a highly decentralized and fragmented system of law enforcement, with over 17,000 (Bureau of Justice Statistics) , state and local law enforcement agencies.

Common Issues People with Disabilities have with Police

Unexpected actions on the parts of some people with disabilities might be misconstrued by police officers or deputies as suspicious, uncooperative behavior, or illegal activity. For example; a police officer approaches a car and asks the driver to step out of their car. The driver, who has a mobility disability, reaches behind the seat to get their assistive device for walking. To the police officer, the driver's behavior appears to be suspicious; we can only hope that at this point, the person does not get shot by the police officer for reaching for their cane. People who:

May not have the ability to respond to the directions a police officer presents them with. These people might erroneously be perceived as being uncooperative. For example; a police officer notes a vehicle with one working headlight and pulls the car over. When the driver hands their registration to the police officer, the officer notices that the driver's hand is trembling and her speech is slurred. The officer jumps to the conclusion that the person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, when in fact, the symptoms the officer notices are caused by a neurological disability.

In another example, a call comes in from a restaurant that a customer is causing a disturbance. When the police officer arrives, she discovers a 25 year old man swaying on his feet and grimacing. The man has pulled the table cloth off of the table. The police officer believes the man has had too much alcohol to drink and is behaving aggressively, when in fact, he is having a seizure. We can only hope the police officer chooses not to use a taser on the man.

Threatening Behavior and People with Disabilities

A police officer may respond to real threats to health or safety, even if the person's actions are a result of their form of disability. Yet it important that police officers are trained to distinguish behaviors that present a real risk from ones that do not and to recognize that a person, such as someone who is having a seizure or exhibiting signs of psychotic crisis, require medical attention and not an abusive tasering or even gunfire. It is also important that behaviors resulting from a form of disability not be criminalized where no crime has been committed. It is vital to avoid the following kinds of scenarios.

The owner of a store calls to report that an apparently homeless person has been in front of the store for an hour and customers are complaining that he seems to be talking to himself. The person, who has a form of mental illness, is not violating panhandling or loitering laws. Police officers arrive and arrest him, even though he has not violated any laws.

Police receive a call in the middle of the night concerning a teenager with mental illness who is beyond the control of her family members. All attempts to obtain services for the teenager at that time of day fail, so the police arrest her until she can receive her treatment. The teenager ends up with a police record, even though she has not committed an offense. One teenager was actually killed by police in a situation such as this one.

Police, People with Disabilities and Recent History

Even though specific details vary by case, the common threads that link these stories together are often times disconcerting. Law enforcement officials demand and expect compliance, but when they do not recognize a person's disability in the course of an interaction, the consequences may be tragic. Assumptions and misconceptions can lead to overreactions on the parts of police officers which culminate in unnecessary arrests, the use of pepper spray, as well as people with disabilities being tasered or even shot.

In data released by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, Americans with disabilities are victims of violent crimes at almost three times the rate of their non-disabled peers. In the year 2012 alone, 1.3 million non-fatal violent crimes were perpetrated against people with disabilities age 12 or older. Statistics bear out that people with disabilities are much more likely to be the victims of crimes than the perpetrators of them and therefore are arguably in greater need of supportive relationships with and understanding from police officers.

Protecting the Rights of People with Disabilities

Education and training are vital if people with disabilities are going to receive equal justice. Children, teenagers and adults with disabilities need to learn about the potential of meeting a police officer, how to protect their rights during such an encounter with police, as well as how to, 'speak up,' if they are being victimized. Cross-training needs to happen among all professionals in police departments, schools, victim assistance agencies and in courtrooms as a way to start opening lines of communication between these systems.

In schools, concerned parents can contact their school and request the use of such training if it is available. They can also contact their local police department and ask for the training officer or police chief as well as the victim assistance department. If disability is not included in officer training, parents and other advocates can request that it be provided. Educating court officials can begin by contacting the court liaison and requesting a meeting with the judge to find out what training is currently being provided.

Encounters between police officers and people with forms of disabilities are becoming a major issue. Police officers are seemingly threatened by almost anything, even a person reaching for their cane, with results that are cruel or even fatal. Training of police officers in relation to people with disabilities is clearly not happening at the rate it needs too. As a person who has epilepsy, osteoarthritis, as well as a sensorineural hearing loss, whenever I see a police officer I am perhaps understandably afraid of them. I don't want to get tasered while having a seizure, shot because I reach for my cane, or treated in the same way simply because I did not hear what some police officer said to me.

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