About 15-20 years ago now, I first encountered studies whose data found a person’s disability to be a stronger predictor of police shootings than race. It is tragic, it is racist, and it is utterly predictable that the US law enforcement system would kill Black men disproportionately. I’m very, very glad that issue is getting attention and hope that the even more disproportionate killings of indigenous and First Nations men get the same attention. Our racism must end, and the NFL protests among other avenues are fruitful efforts to bring attention to racist killings by police officers and the utter lack of accountability for them.
I hope, however, that there is room enough for us to discuss not only the racism of police, but other things as well. The increasing militarism of the police gets some attention, though it is frequently (and wrongly) framed as an alternative reason for concern, as if it’s not okay for white people to care about racist killings of Black men, but if we concern ourselves with police militarism generally then we’re being “fair” or “reasonable” by devoting ourselves to an issue that affects all of us. But receiving very little attention is the slaughter of persons with disabilities.
Though under broad definitions of disability up to 20% of persons in the US may qualify, it is not every disability that makes one likely to be shot and killed. Deafness and epilepsy are disproportionately present in persons shot by police, in part because police are trained to shoot people who don’t unhesitatingly obey their commands. Though many deaf persons can read context very, very well, the orders of a police officer still may not be clear. A common recourse, then, is to slowly try an action (say, move to put a cell phone on a nearby table) while watching the officer giving a command. If the officer looks displeased, a person might stop and try something else, especially if they cannot themselves speak English clearly. The officer might be displeased, however, merely because the action is being undertaken slowly and cautiously, rather than with immediate servility. An officer who actually wanted the phone set down might now shoot to kill because the “subject” made a decision to disobey an order. Epilepsy is even easier to understand: seizures remove conscious control over one’s body and so obeying orders is impossible even where orders are understood (which is far from always, given epilepsy’s further effects).
Other times specific disabilities become relevant only when they co-occur with poverty. Diabetes, for instance, can cause extreme disorientation and irrational actions, but only when poorly treated (or untreated). For those who can afford their treatments and whose treatment isn’t made difficult by other disabilities, these situations are rare. But when they do occur, they can result in behaviors that cops interpret as disobedient or uncooperative or drug-induced. Cops then shoot to kill in accordance with their training and with their sense of entitlement to obedience.
There are a number of studies on this topic, and they’ve been reported on at various points in time from the 90s through to quite recently. However they don’t seem to be getting enough attention. This may in part be to the reasonable reticence of researchers to make conclusions that can’t be thoroughly justified by the data. This in turn is made inevitable by the fact that poor data is collected and kept with regard to police shootings. Most jurisdictions do not report police shootings and deaths in custody, though it’s true that the largest jurisdictions do which means that even with a minority of jurisdictions, the majority of shootings and deaths are likely covered. We can’t be certain, however, and even when reports exist, they do not often record information that would lead to solid conclusions that a disability wasn’t present and wasn’t affecting behaviors of a person that police then used to justify shootings or other violence.
When disabilities are detailed, we have good reason to trust that the information is likely to be accurate. Often there is evidence from family or friends that at least allows investigators to contact medical providers and ask the right questions (though frequently investigators simply accept these statements of disability as true and do not follow up with medical providers). But we can’t be perfectly certain for one tragic reason. In the US today, although police commanders and public officials disingenuously deny that the racial bias in killings has anything to do with race, they at least concede that race stereotypes and racialized expectations are not acceptable justifications for police violence. However, when you bring up disability, the conversation completely changes. Deafness may explain not immediately obeying a cop’s order, but not obeying the cops order is still acceptable grounds for shooting someone. Since cops aren’t trained to seek out problems in communication and attempt to remedy them, but rather to assume that everyone understands their orders perfectly and fail to obey only when intending criminal resistance, the deafness of a random person is a legitimate justification for a law enforcement officer to shoot that person. The media tend to report shootings in accordance with this assumption that violence is justified when a person (for whatever reason) cannot understand what police are saying.
As we challenge the racism of law enforcement with its effects on communities of color and as we challenge the militarism of law enforcement with generalized effects, we must also take the time to challenge the narrative that the deaths of persons with disabilities are acceptable and understandable.
If this seems an inappropriate time for this reminder, consider a couple of things. First, how many times have you had this reminder? If you’re not aware that many studies find disability a better predictor of victimization at the hands of police than race, then any time is the right time for this reminder. Second, among Black men who were the initial focus of Kaepernick’s protests, disability dramatically affects which black men are killed by cops. This isn’t about “race, but….” This is about “race and….” Intersectionality is ever relevant in the analysis of police violence.
Will you be content if police kill only black men who have disabilities? I don’t believe that’s nearly good enough. We must make disability visible and make ableism a relevant, important part of conversations about how to solve the problem of systemic police violence.
Challenge racism, yes. Challenge ableism too.