While an increasing amount of attention has been paid to American police brutality in recent years, the conversation has largely focused on issues of race. While this is undoubtedly an important aspect of the problem, less attention has been paid to police violence against people with disabilities. People with disabilities are at a unique disadvantage when interacting with police officers, who are trained to expect swift compliance with orders. It can be difficult for people with disabilities to comply with these orders, as they often come in the midst of overwhelming and stressful situations. In addition, people who are deaf or hard of hearing will find it nearly impossible to carry out verbal commands without assistance. Police often mistake people with cerebral palsy as being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Several stories involving police violence against people with disabilities have made national headlines, including that of Robert Ethan Saylor, a man with Downs Syndrome who was killed by police in 2013 during a confrontation over movie tickets. Despite the presence of an aid, Saylor was forcefully detained by three off duty police officers, causing him to die from asphyxiation due to fractured throat cartilage. The tragedy generated national outrage and led to the 2013 creation of the Maryland Commission for Effective Community Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. The Commission made recommendations for a program called the Ethan Saylor Alliance for Self-Advocates as Educators, which would seek to train self-advocates to in turn train police officers on best practices for interacting with the disability community. A bill was signed into law in 2015 that officially established the Alliance under the Maryland Department of Disabilities. The Alliance will begin its training program soon and hopes to train 15 self-advocates in 2017.
I had a chance to interview Jennifer Eastman of the Maryland Department of Disabilities about the Ethan Saylor Alliance. She explained that it was a true collaborative effort between the state government, self-advocates, and the Maryland police; the range of viewpoints being considered serves to create a program that will benefit all involved. The self-advocate training will take place over three days and will teach skills such as general self-advocacy, public speaking, information presentation, and law enforcement training. The training will follow Project S.T.I.R. (Steps Toward Independence and Responsibility), a tool developed by the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. The hope is that empowering people with disabilities to advocate for themselves will lead to greater understanding and communication between law enforcement and the disability community. Ms. Eastman told me that the program, despite being in its early days, is already serving as a model to other states. Placing self-advocates at the forefront of the effort is the key to its appeal, because there is nobody better to train police on interactions with people with disabilities than people with disabilities themselves. Learn more about the Ethan Saylor Alliance.