Disabilities and Their Impact on Police Brutality and Discrimination

Disabilities – physical, intellectual and psychological – can have a tremendous impact on any person's life. Disabled persons face various challenges of a social, economic and physical nature. One such challenge, often overlooked, involves treatment by law enforcement. Police discrimination and even violence have been associated with misunderstood or unrecognized disabilities.

Take the January 2013 death of a Maryland man with Down syndrome who suffocated and died when off-duty deputies working as security guards at a movie theatre tried to forcibly remove him from the premises. A recent case involved the March 2014 shooting death of a homeless man who had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals, reportedly suffering from schizophrenia. He was shot to death by police in Albuquerque, New Mexico in an event that spurred an FBI investigation into whether the shooting was justified.

The issue of law enforcement responses to persons with disabilities is such a crucial matter that it spurred a recent meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 29. The meeting, Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety, focused on tragic and highly publicized cases like the two discussed above and included suggested solutions to help prevent such occurrences in the future. It was suggested that law enforcement officers should be provided with the training and tools needed to recognize and respond to various disabilities, through additional funding and support for Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act.

What became apparent in many cases of mistreatment, brutality and violence of disabled persons was not necessarily a prejudice toward the disabled but rather a misunderstanding of potential disabilities and how to safely deal with the people who have these conditions. This issue goes beyond intellectual disabilities or psychological conditions. There have been cases of wrongful arrests of diabetics for drunk driving because they exhibited signs mistaken for intoxication, of deaf persons being mistreated because police thought they were uncooperative, and even a man who was tasered by police while he was having an epileptic seizure.

Law enforcement personnel have a difficult job but are also equipped with the training to handle various situations with reasonable force. Excessive force is not justified in any situation, even if an officer may not realize that a suspect or arrestee is disabled. Disabled persons have the right to be treated with the same level of respect and dignity as anyone else, and law enforcement officers should think before they act. Instead of responding immediately with violence, they should consider whether the person in front of them may have a disability that is affecting their behavior. It is a fine line to walk, of course, and suggestions reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee may help.

Now it is a matter of implementing training programs to help law enforcement personnel identify and respond to disabled persons can help. It also takes a common-sense approach by officers. When a disabled person becomes the victim of police brutality, discrimination or any type of law enforcement misconduct, that person should seek justice.

At Lessem & Newstat, we represent clients throughout the greater Los Angeles area who have been arrested for or accused of a wide range of misdemeanor or felony offenses. When police misconduct is involved, we know how to use this to our clients' advantage as we protect their constitutional and civil rights. If you have a disability that affected the manner in which you were treated by law enforcement, talk to a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney at our firm about your options. We are here to fight for you.