POLICING DISABILITY

Cynthia Betubiza

July is Disability Pride Month

July 14, 2020

Garrison Redd was trying to catch the bus. He likes to travel around the U.S. to explore what’s outside his native New York. 

He waited at the stop in Kissimmee, Florida. And the bus finally came. But the driver refused to let him on and wouldn’t lower the ramp. 

Garrison asked the driver why repeatedly. But no answer and no explanation. He was being refused service. Garrison called the police, but the local sheriff said the driver has every right to refuse because, “It’s not like how it is in New York”. People on the bus were getting upset with the driver, confused and angry. 

The police left, and Garrison had a feeling about what was really going on. An all-too-familiar knowing. “I knew it had one or two things that it had to do with. It was either me being Black or me being disabled.”

Garrison Redd is a 31-year-old African-American man who uses a wheelchair. 

When he was 17, he was shot by a stranger while he was hanging out in front of his home in Brooklyn on an otherwise ordinary summer night. The bullets paralyzed him from the waist down.

Ever since, he’s experienced the compound effects of racism and ableism. “Being Black and a Black male… there’s tons of discrimination and oppression that comes with that specific demographic. And then with being disabled, that’s a whole other realm of discrimination and oppression.”

These effects have a concrete influence on his life. “I remember being denied for countless jobs and working hard at doing the things that I wanted to do, but however, I was told that I couldn’t due to my disability.”

Garrison Redd.

The data isn’t complete because some police departments do not report or release specific demographic statistics on police kills, and there’s no national database. But a recent report by the Ruderman Foundation found that between 25 and 40 percent of police shooting victims are people with mental illness or disability. Note, mental illness, cognitive, sensory, and emotional disabilities are a non-visible form of disability. This is present in in the case of Sandra Bland, who lived with depression. Or with Robert Ethan Saylor, a Maryland man with Down syndrome who was killed by three off-duty officers through asphyxiation. Or with George Zapantis, a 29-year-old man with bipolar disorder who died of a hear attack after being tasered repeatedly by the police. 

A study from the American Journal of Public Health found that people with disabilities are, as analyzed by Cornell University, “44 percent more likely to be arrested by age 28.” Compared to 30 percent, the probability of arrest for people who do not have disabilities.

For Black men with disabilities, the disparity is even deeper: 55 percent of Black men with disabilities had been arrested before the age of 28, compared to 40 percent of their white counterparts. 

A report from the ACLU shows how often people who are deaf are victims of police brutality. For example, a 64-year-old man named Pearl Pearson was severely beaten by patrol officers during a traffic stop in Oklahoma City. Pearson is deaf and diabetic, and was trying to pull out his placard indicating that, but was pulled from his car and repeatedly physically assaulted by the officers before he could do that. A sign language interpreter was never called to the scene. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that police officers “ensure effective communication with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.” But this does not necessarily mean that police officers are required to call in an interpreter. The type of help called is left to the discretion of the officer on the scene. Leaving it to the officer’s discretion often results in no help being called at all.

It’s been 14 years since Garrison’s injury. Now he’s a Team USA Para Powerlifter, a disabled-rights advocate, a model, and a dancer. And he has a non-profit dedicated to assisting people with disabilities, especially those from low-income neighborhoods, achieve independence and success. 

Garrison grew up under the watchful eye of Mayor Bloomberg’s infamous stop-and-frisk policies, in which officers could randomly stop and search people under “reasonable suspicion”. This disproportionately affected Black and other people of color. A report found that between 2004-2012, Black people made up 52 percent of the stops. A large percentage of those stops happened in predominantly Black and other POC lower-income neighborhoods like East New York, Flatbush, and Garrison’s home of Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Garrison and his friends were repeatedly subject to these unprovoked searches. “Everyday, like coming home from school…the plain-clothes cops would hop out the cars…and they’d search us.”

This happened often enough that Garrison and his friends knew that to stay safe, they’d better shut up. “So even if you ask a simple question like, ‘why you stopped at me?’, that could really escalate into you being arrested for no apparent reason.” They had no choice but to comply. “Who do you complain to? I don’t know if you could tell 9-1-1 that the police are bothering [you].”

“If there’s like two or more black males in a car in Brooklyn, they’ll definitely pull you over. If you have a hooded sweatshirt on, you’re bound to get pulled over.”

The intersection of race, disability, and policing is deeply tied to issues of class and control, says Talila Lewis, an attorney, organizer and co-founder of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities). “Disability is commonly understood through a white and wealth privileged lens. This perspective does not do justice to the complex ways that disability exists, arises in and is expressed through Black peoples’ bodies and minds.” And society’s collective understanding of disability is not intersectional, Lewis says, not acknowledging how multiple, compound identities are abused. “White mainstream disability rights communities operate within a rigid definition of disability—often refusing to acknowledge and honor Black disabled people due to internalized racism, classism and ableism…while Black communities often hold internalized ableism due to generations of anti-black disability labels being imposed upon us making us more vulnerable to all manner of violence once identified as disabled.”

Garrison and his friends would put their hands up as soon as they were stopped and roll down the windows. “If there’s like two or more black males in a car in Brooklyn, they’ll definitely pull you over. If you have a hooded sweatshirt on, you’re bound to get pulled over.”

At this time, it was against NYPD law for a regular officer to search someone with a physical disability. A specially-trained officer had to be brought in. But this hardly ever happened with Garrison. He’d have to go out of his way to inform the officers of the proper procedure in order to protect his own physical safety and prevent further injury. “Before I knew the law, I would get searched. But when I knew the law, I was able to say, ‘Hey, you can’t search me. I have a disability.’ Prior to that, even if they saw the wheelchair, if I didn’t say anything, they’d still try to search me.”

New York City changed mayors again and again, but these searches did not stop. Garrison continued being profiled and targeted—and mistreated as both a Black man and as a person with disabilities. The situations escalated, and the necessary help never came. 

Lewis, the attorney-organizer from HEARD, says policing people with disabilities, especially Black people with disabilities, has long relied on harmful  assumptions. “The United States government has long since used constructed ideas about disability, delinquency and dependency, intertwined with constructed ideas about race to classify and criminalize people. The result is those who live at the intersections of these targeted identities being made particularly vulnerable to policing systems.”

Garrison thinks that to address this issue and protect people like him, police departments across the board need to invest in educating all officers properly about working with people with disabilities. “I think they definitely need better training. If they had a better understanding of how disability comes as far as all the visible, invisible [types]… I think it would assist them in better with dealing with the disability community.” Garrison says that he would be willing to come to different departments and help teach the trainings, so that each officer would know how to adequately and safely respond.

Currently, much of police training is geared toward teaching officers how to gain control of a situation, teaching control/defense tactics such as weapon retention, firearm training, ground fighting, neck/carotid restraints, speed cuffing, and more. Other training includes skills such as report writing, patrol procedures, basic first aid/CPR, ethics and integrity, criminal/constitutional law, and so on. And as we learned during our deep dive into use of force policies, some police departments require de-escalation training. However, training for all officers for working with people with disabilities is not mandatory in many U.S. police departments

Some police departments do have these disability trainings on the books. But Lewis, of HEARD, says these aren’t effective. “Police have been receiving all manner of training for at least fifty years—including on race, class, disabilities. Yet we are seeing more, not less violence. There are bigger, more powerful forces at play that are operating to maintain this violent system—including hyper-militarization, hyper-criminalization, monetization of and investment in every aspect of policing and incarceration amid divestment from social services….”

Lewis says that violence is an inherent structure within policing, something that education can’t undo. “We cannot train racism, ableism, classism, patriarchy, white supremacy out of the system of policing because it is not a mere training shortfall or design flaw in the system that leads to disabled…low/no income, and other marginalized people to be abused and killed by law enforcement.”

No matter what the fight for change may look like, or how long that fight may last, Garrison is in it the long haul. “When they had the Montgomery Bus boycott, people came out and boycotted it for 368 days. That’s more than a year. So if that’s what we’re going to do to create change, that’s what we’re going to do.”

In the next Become All story, we’ll dive into more possible solutions.

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