Researchers have uncovered a commonly missing factor in police brutality stories: A victim’s disability. According to an in-depth study published this week by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disabled advocacy group, up to half of all people killed by law enforcement are living with a disability.
This is the case for the majority of the high-profile incidents in the last few years, many of which have become the face of the Black Lives Matter movement, the study finds.
Freddie Gray was a victim of lead poisoning, which can cause developmental disabilities (a fear that’s become more widespread in the aftermath of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis). Sandra Bland had epilepsy, and being jailed without her medication may have unleashed depressive side effects some say lead to her alleged suicide. And officials claimed Eric Garner “almost definitely…would not have died” if he hadn’t suffered from serious obesity — seeming to blame Garner’s disability for his death.
The disabilities featured in these prominent cases, along with many others mentioned in the study, are not always detectable by law enforcement. But others, as with Brian Sterner, who was thrown from his wheelchair by police who though he was faking his disability, and a Houston double amputee shot for threatening an officer with a pen, are impossible to miss.
“Training is a necessary first step. Reforming the system follows closely behind,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation. “The rights of people with disabilities must be respected just like any other American citizen.”
However, researchers say the bigger problem lies in the hands of the reporters covering these cases. The way the media often relays this information limits the public’s comprehensive understanding of disability issues, which could inform necessary change in how law enforcement officials interact with people with disabilities.
The researchers reviewed thousands of media reports of disability and police use of force between 2013 and 2015, focusing on the coverage of eight prominent cases, to compile the study’s results.
“When reporters acknowledge the presence of disability in a use-of-force incident, they routinely deploy it to generate empathy (generally good) or pity (generally a mistake) for the victims of police violence,” the report reads. “The best reporting needs to look at all the ways in which police misunderstandings about disability — and the ways those misunderstandings intensify the likelihood of an encounter — turn violent.”
People with disabilities who’ve rallied for recognition by presidential and congressional candidates this year have said that the overlap of police brutality and disability issues could give them a needed voice in the election process.
“Safe encounters with the police is a much more prominent issue now,” said Andrew Pulrang, a member of the online disability rights campaign #cripthevote. “A lot of people wounded by police have disabilities — it’s often part of the confusion that leads to police shooting them. Hopefully this focus can have more politicians thinking about police training.”