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Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray: The Toll Of Police Violence On Disabled Americans

June 9, 2020

What do Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Deborah Danner, Ezell Ford, Alfred Olango and Keith Lamont Scott all have in common? They were all Black Americans who died at the hands of the police or in police custody. And they were all also disabled.  

Sandra Bland, 28, had epilepsy and depression and was found hanged in a jail cell in Texas after being arrested for an alleged lane change violation. Eric Garner, 43, had asthma, diabetes and a heart condition and died after an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold while arresting him for allegedly selling cigarettes without tax stamps. Freddie Gray, 25, had a developmental disability due to being exposed to lead at an early age and died from a severe spinal injury after police officers reportedly gave him a “rough ride” in the back of a police van. Tanisha Anderson, 37, died while having a mental health crisis and being restrained by police officers with her face down in front of her Cleveland, Ohio, home.

Deborah Danner, 66, had schizophrenia and died after being shot by an NYPD officer, who was responding to her neighbor’s call that she had been behaving erratically. Four years earlier she had written an essay about mental health stigma that predicted, chillingly, the circumstances of her own death. “We are all aware,” she wrote, “of the all-too-frequent news stories about the mentally ill who come up against law enforcement instead of mental health professionals and end up dead.”

Ezell Ford, 25, who had bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia, was shot dead by LAPD officers during an alleged struggle. Alfred Olango, 38, was shot dead after his sister called the police for help while he was having a crisis related to his mental illness. Keith Lamont Scott, 43, had a traumatic brain injury from a prior accident and died after police shot him for not following orders to exit his car. Even George Floyd, whose killing by a Minneapolis police officer sparked the nationwide protests, had a heart condition, hypertension and sickle cell trait

These deaths are part of a disturbing pattern in police killings. While the numbers of disabled people killed by police are not systematically tracked in the United States, the Ruderman Foundation has estimated that between a third to half of all Americans killed by police have a disability. To put that into perspective, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that disabled American adults make up a quarter of the population, making them the largest minority group.

Many of the disabled people killed by police are also people of color, with Natives and Black people disproportionately affected. People of color in the US are more likely to be disabled, have a mental illness or have a chronic medical condition, due to a number of factors, including environmental racism and poor access to healthcare. Given the significant overlap between police brutality toward Black people and people with disabilities, any meaningful attempt at change must address both factors. 

Advocates have long proposed solutions that would address the needs of both Black and disabled people entangled in the criminal legal system. Campaign Zero, a campaign associated with Black Lives Matter activists, recommends police be provided crisis intervention training. The campaign also advocates redirecting funds from police budgets to non-law-enforcement solutions for crisis situations, such as unarmed mental health response teams, which research shows may reduce police use of force by 40%.

Other activists argue for more radical measures: Talila L Lewis, a Black lawyer at Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities, and Leroy F Moore Jr, a Black man with cerebral palsy who co-founded the Krip Hop Nation movement and POOR Magazine, have long called for the abolition of the police and prison systems. Advocates for police abolition believe that police don’t protect communities, given the origins of American law enforcement in slavery, and are actually a public health threat; they say we should gradually divest from the police altogether with an eye toward complete reliance on community-based forms of support such as mental health service providers, social workers, religious leaders, neighbors, and friends. 

As the Rev Al Sharpton said in his eulogy at George Floyd’s memorial service on 4 June, we’re now in “a different time and a different season”. It’s a time to start listening to Black disabled activists.

  • Dominic Bradley is a Black disabled writer living and working in Brooklyn
  • Sarah Katz writes about disability. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, the New York Times, and Slate
One Comment leave one →
  1. Robert Bluck permalink
    June 9, 2020 3:27 pm

    Read the TRUTH about American cops compared to the rest of the World USA Police Kill More In A Day Than Other Countries In Years.

    The TRUTH:

    From year 1900 to 2000 (100-years) British police shot dead 55 people.
    USA police shoot dead 1,000 PEOPLE EVERY YEAR .

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