September 21, 2017; NBC News
Two years ago, an op-ed co-authored by Jay Ruderman, the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, and Jo Ann Simons, president and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers in Massachusetts, called national attention to the enormous incidence of police killings of people with disabilities. On the Ruderman Foundation’s website, a white paper points out just how frequently this occurs: “Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. Disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated. The media is ignoring the disability component of these stories, or, worse, is telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism.”
They also say you may see the highest rates of the problem in those places where disability intersects with other factors that place people at higher risk of police violence.
Disability intersects with other factors such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, to magnify degrees of marginalization and increase the risk of violence. When the media ignores or mishandles a major factor, as we contend they generally do with disability, it becomes harder to effect change.
However, at least awareness is increasing. When Magdiel Sanchez, 35, was shot and killed on a porch Tuesday night after police saw him holding a metal pipe, the systemic issues behind the incident were quickly brought into public focus by advocacy groups.
The scene was excruciatingly familiar: As Oklahoma City police Capt. Bo Mathews told the public, Sanchez was shot after being ordered to put the pipe in his hand down. Sanchez, as we now know, was deaf and could not speak; his neighbors even cried out, “He can’t hear you!”
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The nonprofit advocacy group HEARD, which tracks incidents of police brutality against deaf people, says Sanchez’s killing emphasizes the need for better training of police in recognizing disability.
“It’s tragic, but not surprising,” says HEARD Director Talila Lewis. “We can’t presume that everyone can comply with orders on demand.”
Howard Rosenblum, the National Association of the Deaf’s CEO and director of legal services, said, “This is not the first time that there have been a failure of communication between law enforcement officers and deaf persons resulting in the deaf person’s death, and this absolutely needs to stop. All law enforcement officers must be trained to identify when a person they are dealing with may be deaf, hard of hearing, or have disabilities of some kind.”
Lewis says that training alone cannot be the whole answer. “We need demilitarization. We need to look at alternative ways of keeping our community safe that don’t involve law enforcement.”
NPQ recalls this same media complicity was once an active factor in the way the public understood domestic violence and violence against women more generally. Advocacy groups made a big point of tracking media reports and retraining the media on their frames for reporting the problem. It worked; it refocused attention to the problem as systemic and not addressed appropriately by multiple institutions, including the police and courts.—Ruth McCambridge