By John Whitehead
Think twice before you call the police 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 person’s life.
At a time when literally hundreds of unarmed people have been shot and killed for just standing a certain way, or moving a certain way, or holding something—anything—that police could misinterpret to be a gun or igniting some trigger-centric fear in a police officer’s 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, police—trained in the worst case scenario and thus ready to shoot first and ask questions later—increasingly 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-I’ll-shoot tactics employed by America’s police forces.
For instance, Gay Plack, a 57-year-old Virginia woman with bipolar disorder, was killed after two police officers—sent to do a welfare check on her—entered 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.
Four seconds. That’s 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.
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 else’s. Suddenly, everyone and everything else is a threat that must be neutralized or eliminated.
In light of the government’s 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 (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.
For example, in South Carolina, police tasered an 86-year-old grandfather reportedly in the early stages of dementia, while he was jogging backwards away from them.
In Oklahoma, police shot and killed a 35-yearold deaf man seen holding a two-foot metal pipe on his front porch (he used the pipe to fend off stray dogs while walking). Despite the fact that witnesses warned police that Magdiel Sanchez couldn’t hear—and thus comply—with their shouted orders to drop the pipe and get on the ground, police shot the man when he was about 15 feet away from them.
In Maryland, police (moonlighting as security guards) used extreme force to eject a 26-year-old man with Downs Syndrome and a low IQ from a movie theater after the man insisted on sitting through a second screening of a film. Autopsy results indicate that Ethan Saylor died of complications arising from asphyxiation, likely caused by a chokehold.
In Florida, police armed with assault rifles fired three shots at a 27-year-old nonverbal, autistic man who was sitting on the ground, playing with a toy truck. Police missed the autistic man and instead shot his behavioral therapist, Charles Kinsey, who had been trying to get him back to his group home. The therapist, bleeding from a gunshot wound, was then handcuffed and left lying face down on the ground for 20 minutes.
These cases, and the hundreds—if not thousands—more that go undocumented every year speak to a crisis in policing when it comes to law enforcement’s failure to adequately assess, de-escalate, and manage encounters with special needs or disabled individuals.
While the research is relatively scant, what has been happening is telling.
Where does this leave us?
For starters, we need better police training across the board, but especially when it comes to de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that Crisis Intervention Team-trained officers made fewer arrests, used less force, and connected more people with mental-health services than their non-trained peers.
Second, police need to learn how to slow confrontations down, instead of ramping up the tension (and the noise). Maryland police recruits are now required to take a four-hour course in which they learn “de-escalation tactics” for dealing with disabled individuals: speak calmly, give space, be patient. One officer in charge of the LAPD’s “mental response teams” suggests that instead of rushing to take someone into custody, police should try to slow things down and persuade the person to come with them.
Why not use some of the funds flowing to police departments to establish what one disability rights activist describes as “a 911-type number dedicated to handling mental-health emergencies, with community crisis-response teams at the ready rather than police officers.”
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His books Battlefield America: The War on the American People and A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State are available from the AFP Bookstore. He can be contacted at [email protected].