Half of People Killed at the Hands of Police Are Disabled

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Protests erupt over video release of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.
Laquan McDonald suffered from PTSD and "complex mental health problems."Photo: TANNEN MAURY/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Violent police clashes with citizens, especially minority citizens, have received a lot of scrutiny in the past several years. But a new report reveals one aspect of these incidents that doesn’t: About half all of people killed by cops are physically or mentally disabled. Psychological illness, especially, is a giant factor in these cases. “Police have become the default responders to mental health calls,” write historian David Perry and disabilities expert and advocate Lawrence Carter-Long, whose report was sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Laquan McDonald, who became a symbol for misplaced use of force when he was shot last year in Chicago, suffered from PTSD and “complex mental health problems.” Kajieme Powell, as my colleague Jesse Singal has noted, was bipolar. Other high-profile victims have had significant physical problems: Eric Garner was barely able to walk a block. Freddie Gray had lead poisoning. John Williams, a wood-carver who was stopped by a cop, was shot to death when he wouldn’t drop his knife in response to a shouted command; he turned out to be deaf. In multiple cases arrestees with Down syndrome, who may or may not have been able to understand police commands, have been roughed up or killed. (Other researchers have found that one in ten police calls involves someone with a disability, and one in three people arriving at emergency rooms in “psychiatric crisis” have been brought there by the police.)

The authors analyzed cases from 2013 through 2015 and describe a culture in which law-enforcement officers by default treat the disabled as “dangerous to themselves and others.” The authors suggest new training for officers to specifically address people with mental disabilities. They also call upon the media to report distinctions beyond race, and to consider other forms of discrimination, when these cases are reported upon.