Three Threats: 2. Police Violence

"Danger" sign, white letters inside a broad red oval, surrounded by a rectangle of black

From a July 6, 2016 blog post:

“Over the next few days, I plan on writing a series of posts about what I believe to be three of the most dangerous and imminent threats to disabled people in America today. By "threats" I don't mean garden-variety injustices, or everyday ableism ... even though some days they seem to eat away at our souls. I'm talking about specific measures or trends that threaten our actual survival. And by "survival," I mean our economic viability, our physical and psychological independence, and our lives and safety.”

On July 11, I tried to describe and explain Populist Backlash. I planned to focus on "Re-Institutionalization" as the second of the Three Threats. However, while I am still quite worried that disability policy could, in the next few years, veer back towards a new segregation, instead I'm going to talk about a more imminent threat: the risk of injury or death in encounters with law enforcement.


I was going to start with a carefully-assembled rundown of recent events to prove that this is actually an active threat, and not just an over-publicized series of unfortunate mishaps. Instead, I suggest simply reading the two articles linked below. The second one is also mentioned and linked in the first. Both together provide what feels like a complete overview of how police violence specifically affects people with disabilities, in ways that often combine with racial bias, sexism, hobophobia, and transphobia, but are also distinguishable from them.

Four Essays by People of Color on Disability and Policing
David Perry, How Did We Get Into This Mess? - August 2, 2016

Charles Kinsey's Story Is About Race. It's Also About Ableism
Finn Gardiner, Manuel Díaz , Lydia X. Z. Brown, Sojourners - July 27, 2016

These incidents are horrifying and almost always morally infuriating as well. It's terrible when disabled people are hurt or killed by police, and it's an outrage that there is almost always a mix of implicit biases, ignorance of basic facts about disabilities, and unjustified fear involved. But, does this really qualify as one of the top three threats disabled people face today? I think it does, and here is a rough sketch of why I do:

- Disabled people have probably always been at unique and distinct risk of police violence. Armed police expect people to look and behave in certain ways, and disabled people, by definition, often can’t conform, even when we want to. Deaf people may not respond to verbal commands. Autistic people may recoil from unexpected engagement or challenge. Physically disabled people can look or sound drunk or drugged. The risk has always been there. It just hasn’t been as recognized as it should be, by police or by disabled people themselves.

- An apparent increase in incidents, and more immediate publicity about them, makes us more aware of the possibility that catastrophic things could happen to us, specifically in encounters with police. This further erodes any sense of safety and acceptance we may have or think we have as disabled people. People who are disabled and black, or gay, or trans, or any combination of other oppressed identities may be more tuned into this danger. Many of us, though, live more sheltered, privileged lives in which our disabilities seem on most days to be relatively minor social inconveniences. For most of my life, it would have never occurred to me, a white, straight male, that police might one day drastically misunderstand me, leading to tragic consequences. Seeing this happen more often, and seeing how nonsensical it is when it does happen, has stripped away a good deal of my unconscious sense of invulnerability. I have always expected condescension. I have only recently begun to worry about my physical safety.

- There may still not be a high probability that any given disabled person will be hurt or killed by police. But any probability is too much, when the consequences are so dire.

- I say "probably," but I don't think we really know. It's a crisis if you know of a threat but have no real idea of it's size or likelihood. We know the consequences. We have some ideas about the causes. But that is about all we know, and that by itself is terrifying.

- Each new incident adds to a sense of danger that probably makes more actual incidents more likely to happen. Everyone is on edge, which does not help.

The main debate about this within the disability community is whether "better police training" can help, or whether it's a comforting but ineffective distraction from broader changes in policing. I think which is the right answer matters less than acknowledging that it is a serious question.

It is tempting, even seductive, to offer up an annual sensitivity training with PowerPoint handouts and call it a problem solved. If mandatory training can reduce the number of people hurt or killed, I'm all for it. Still, we can't separate out this slice of the wider problem of police violence and deem it somehow lesser, or easier to solve ... because it probably isn't. It's not only a serious threat to disabled people today, it's a long term one.