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We need to do more to protect disabled persons from police violence

As someone who has severe post-traumatic stress disorder, I am concerned that I will be labeled as dangerous by the police when my mental health issues become aggravated.

Last month, New York State launched a program that allows people with developmental disabilities to receive cards that have their disability or disabilities designated on them. These cards, which stem from a 2018 law, are an effort to better facilitate interactions between people with disabilities and first responders, which includes the police.

Police interactions with disabled people often involve ignorant and frustrating exchanges at best – at their worst, these exchanges can be lethal. The Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability organization, found that anywhere from a third to half of all people who are killed by police are disabled. The statistics are even greater for the number of disabled persons who experience non-lethal violence and abuse. 

People with developmental disabilities – which include conditions like Fragile X syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – may cause a person to be wrongly perceived as aggressive or a threat. Any steps to ensure the safety of people from the police are important, but what steps are being put into place to protect people with other disabilities? While this ID card law is a positive step – these cards should not be limited to people with developmental disabilities. Mental health symptoms, like certain symptoms of developmental disabilities, can also be perceived as aggressive.

As someone who has severe post-traumatic stress disorder, I am concerned that I will be labeled as dangerous by the police when my mental health issues become aggravated.

My fears are definitely not unfounded. In recent years, far too many people have been killed by the police while experiencing a mental health crisis. One of these numerous cases include the tragic death of Saheed Vassell, who was killed by the police after they claimed that a metal pipe that he carried was a gun in Crown Heights. Vassell had bipolar disorder.

While my concerns are valid, I need to recognize that I’m in an extremely privileged position as a white woman. In the book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, author Andrea J. Ritchie explores the violence that women of color face from police in general and during mental health crises. One of the women that Ritchie highlights is Eleanor Bumpurs, a grandmother who lived in public housing in the Bronx and was $100 short on rent. Bumpurs, who was diagnosed with psychosis, was shot and killed by the police after she picked up a knife to defend herself when the police came to evict her. Despite public outcry for the police to learn to better approach people in the midst of a mental health crisis after Bumpur’s death in 1984, Vassell’s death in 2018 shows not much has changed.

Another issue with this law is that it does not mention any retroactive measures to address the over-policing of disabled people, including those with developmental disabilities. In order to make sure that disabled people aren’t essentially being imprisoned because of symptoms of their disability or disabilities – there should be two main areas to this reform. The first area would be to train first responders on how to respond to disabled people when they are having a crisis. This training would ideally train police officers and relevant others workers on how to differentiate between someone who is being violent and someone who is displaying characteristics of their developmental disability. The second area would be to evaluate prisoners with developmental disabilities and to see if they were fairly charged and sentenced. If someone was acting in what could be perceived as an unusual way but the police claimed was aggressive, this should be grounds for release. Having symptoms of a developmental disability is not a crime.

New York State’s ID card program for people with developmental disabilities is a good first step, but there is still a lot more work to do. New York State should consider expanding the ID card program to all people with disabilities and must confront the long history and current issues with imprisoning disabled people. Disabled people like myself deserve better, and we need better laws to protect ourselves from injustice.