Why are police encounters more dangerous for disabled people?

A study from Cornell University in 2017 found what many people already knew -- that people who have disabilities are more likely to find themselves under arrest than those who don't have a physical or mental disability -- 44 percent more likely. According to a report published the previous year by the Ruderman Family Foundation, up to a half of all instances in which force is used by police involve disabled people, and "up to half of all people killed by the police in the United States are disabled."

Often these arrests and uses of force stem from misunderstanding on the part of the disabled person and/or the officer. As one advocate for the rights of the disabled says, "We know people with disabilities are responding to police officers in different ways and that police have countered with the use of force. For example, someone who is deaf might not hear a command…. Similarly, someone who is autistic might take time to respond and someone who is diabetic might move their body in ways the police doesn't expect."

When people don't respond to police commands, officers may assume they're failing to cooperate. This can escalate the situation. As one woman with the group Access Living says, sometimes people "have been harmed for just being what they naturally are."

A proposed consent decree that's currently being evaluated by a federal judge would require the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to provide training to its officers on dealing with people who have disabilities.

This training could help the city prevent lawsuits like the one it's facing on behalf of a young man with intellectual and developmental disabilities who was shot by an off-duty CPD officer in 2017, despite the fact that he was unarmed, after his caretaker reported him missing. The 18-year-old's actions and lack of responses, as documented in the police report, apparently led the officer to believe he was a threat. Although he survived, he's been traumatized by the event, according to his attorney.

If you believe your rights or those of a loved one were violated by law enforcement officers because of a physical or mental disability, it may be wise to explore your legal options. A civil action can help you seek justice and perhaps raise awareness of the added dangers faced by disabled people in encounters with the police.

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