Anyone who cares for someone with a developmental disability, as well as for disabled people themselves [lives] every day in fear that their behavior will be misconstrued as suspicious, intoxicated or hostile by law enforcement.Steve Silberman, The New York Times
They shot at him fourteen times.
Walter Wallace Jr.a troubled 27-year-old black man with a criminal history and mental health issueswas no saint. Still, he didnt deserve to die in a hail of bullets fired by two police officers who clearly had not been adequately trained in how to de-escalate encounters with special needs individuals.
Wallace wasnt unarmedhe was reportedly holding a knife when police confronted himyet neither cop attempted to use non-lethal weapons on Wallace, who appeared to be in the midst of a mental health crisis. In fact, neither cop even possessed a taser. Wallace, fired upon repeatedly by both officers, was hit in the shoulder and chest and pronounced dead at the hospital.
Wallaces death is yet one more grim statistic to add to that growing list of Americansunarmed, impaired or experiencing a mental health crisiswho have been killed by police trained to shoot first and ask questions later.
Its also a powerful reminder to think twice before you call the cops to carry out a welfare check on a loved one. Especially if that person is autistic, hearing impaired, mentally ill, elderly, suffering from dementia, disabled or might have a condition that hinders their ability to understand, communicate or immediately comply with an order.
Particularly if you value that persons life.
There are some things that dont change. Even as the nation grapples with the twin distractions of political theater and a viral pandemic, there are still deadlier forces at play.
This is one of them.
At a time when growing numbers of unarmed people have been shot and killed for just standing a certain way, or moving a certain way, or holding somethinganythingthat police could misinterpret to be a gun, or igniting some trigger-centric fear in a police officers mind that has nothing to do with an actual threat to their safety, even the most benign encounters with police can have fatal consequences.
Unfortunately, policetrained in the worst case scenario and thus ready to shoot first and ask questions laterincreasingly pose a risk to anyone undergoing a mental health crisis or with special needs whose disabilities may not be immediately apparent or require more finesse than the typical freeze-or-Ill-shoot tactics employed by Americas police forces.
Just last year, in fact, Gay Plack, a 57-year-old Virginia woman with bipolar disorder, was killed after two police officerssent to do a welfare check on herentered her home uninvited, wandered through the house shouting her name, kicked open her locked bedroom door, discovered the terrified woman hiding in a dark bathroom and wielding a small axe, and four seconds later, shot her in the stomach.
Thats all the time it took for the two police officers assigned to check on Plack to decide to use lethal force against her (both cops opened fire on the woman), rather than using non-lethal options (one cop had a Taser, which he made no attempt to use) or attempting to de-escalate the situation.
The police chief defended his officers actions, claiming they had no other option but to shoot the 5 foot 4 inch woman with carpal tunnel syndrome who had to quit her job at a framing shop because her hand was too weak to use the machine that cut the mats.
This is what happens when you empower the police to act as judge, jury and executioner.
This is what happens when you indoctrinate the police into believing that their lives and their safety are paramount to anyone elses.
Suddenly, everyone and everything else is a threat that must be neutralized or eliminated.
In light of the governments ongoing efforts to predict who might pose a threat to public safety based on mental health sensor data (tracked by wearable data such as FitBits and Apple Watches and monitored by government agencies such as HARPA, the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency), encounters with the police could get even more deadly, especially if those involved have a mental illness or disability.
Indeed, disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. (People of color are three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.) If youre black and disabled, youre even more vulnerable.
A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation reports that disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated
Many more disabled civilians experience non-lethal violence and abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers.
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