Protecting People With Disabilities From Police Brutality

Ashley Jacobson
Police car with flashing lights.
Police car with flashing lights.

Members of the disability community often live in danger simply by existing in a society built to exclude them. This is glaringly apparent when they encounter police, first responders, and crisis workers — individuals who are rarely trained on how to uniquely approach and assess situations involving a person with a disability.  Studies and police reports by jurisdiction show that a large portion of people with disabilities are victims of excessive force by police, and children and adults with disabilities are more likely to be arrested in and out of schools.

Many victims of this abuse are dealing with the complex challenges that come with navigating a system built to discriminate against them based on race and disability.  Regardless of how the system evolves after nationwide calls to reform, defund or abolish the police, the criminal justice, legal and health systems are far from equal and accessible despite the clear and broad disability rights afforded in the United States.

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While the responsibility shouldn’t be on the person with a disability to fit into an inaccessible system, their life may depend on it.  There are vital strategies people with disabilities can use to proactively protect themselves the next time they get pulled over by police or call 9-1-1 for help.

Practice any strategies you find helpful or necessary in urgent situations — prior to needing them. It is impossible to prepare for every potential situation, but common scenarios that would benefit from practice include being stopped by police while driving, calling 9-1-1 when in physical harm or emotional crisis, contacting caregivers in moments of urgency, and reporting a crime.  Unless there is a current emergency, practice without actually dialing 9-1-1, but assess whether your dexterity needs allow dialing or try using accessibility features on your phone.  Identify any barriers as well as any relatively simple accommodations that allow for quick and accurate communication.

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In an emergency, a person with a disability or the person with them needs a means to disclose their condition in a credible manner, even if it is not believed to be relevant, without painting the person with a disability as violent or aggressive.  It should not be the responsibility of the disability community to make police better at their jobs, but not framing disability appropriately can cause officers to arrive on the scene in a heightened state of unnecessary aggressiveness.  Until police officers and responders consistently prove they are treating citizens with disabilities equally and appropriately, the disability community must protect its members through preparedness and safety measures.

One such protective measure is to use a disability identification card. This is a card that communicates to police or first responders that an individual has a disability.  It is important that police are notified that the person has a disability, because if an officer knows and still violates disability rights, the person could have a more solid legal case should he or she choose to sue the officer.  While qualified immunity is a common barrier pertaining to police misconduct, disability rights laws do allow officers to be sued when disability rights are violated.

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Importantly, a disability card also explains disability efficiently and lists simple accommodations to foster communication.  Many associations provide disability identification cards on their websites, or a person with a disability can make their own, but using a card from a known or reputable association or doctor’s office is often given greater respect by police.  Nonetheless, simply having such a card is not enough.  It must be placed in a prominent and accessible location.

Drivers with disabilities, especially if the involved disabilities affect receiving or relaying information in any way, could tape their disability identification card on their steering wheel as well as taping it somewhere on their vehicle that is easily visible by police but does not obstruct the driver’s vision when driving.  Check local laws to be certain the location of the card is legally allowed.

In addition to affixing the card on a steering wheel and/or bottom corner of a window, another copy of the card could be paper-clipped to the person’s license.  Keep the license and card somewhere easily accessible by the driver, without placing it in a center console or compartment that requires obvious movement in the car.  Such movements can put police on guard, and could potentially place the person with a disability in heightened danger.  A great place to leave your license with a laminated disability identification card is an extra cup holder.  This could allow the driver to quickly grab what’s needed without bending over or searching throughout the car.  Additionally, a photograph of the card can be saved with ease on the driver’s cell phone.

Unfortunately, sometimes a disability identification card may not be enough to dissuade police from violating your disability rights — so the more credible evidence you have, the better.  First responders such as paramedics or crisis intervention teams may also need more information to best serve your emergency needs.  For these reasons, it can also help to have some type of letter or medical record showing you have a disability or condition and your symptoms are legitimate.  This could be a letter from a disability rights attorney, doctor, or rehabilitation counseling professional.  Save supplementary evidence of your disability in your car, phone, handbag, briefcase and/or home.  This shouldn’t be necessary, but unfortunately without evidence backing up your account of your disability, too often officers and crisis responders make assumptions based on stigma that could endanger your life.

It is partly because of these dangers that disability rights were so fiercely fought for by advocates and leaders.  It is especially important to know your rights.  People do not lose their disability rights simply because they are stopped, detained, arrested, prosecuted or incarcerated.  Review the Americans With Disabilities Act and other disability rights laws, make a list of reasonable accommodations to create an accessible environment if pulled over by police or arrested, and create a game plan to follow if police or first responders violate those rights.  As always, disability rights attorneys and rehabilitation counselors can be great resources to consult when crafting your emergency plan.

Identify potential attorneys to enforce your disability rights and hold those who violate such rights accountable.  This is just one way to practice how to respond when disability rights, or constitutional rights, are violated.  Look for attorneys who not only practice law in the necessary legal and geographic areas but who additionally have a comprehensive knowledge and history of representing people with disabilities.  Do they mainly focus on serving the disability community?  Are they equipped to represent someone with your specific disabilities?  Do they ask the right questions and provide the right solutions to accommodate legal processes to your disability needs?

Research attorneys long before you need to hire them.  Many attorneys provide free initial consultations and have social media pages.  Use the initial consultation as an opportunity to explain your goal of identifying an attorney who is well versed in serving clients with disabilities.  Look on the attorney’s social media pages as well as lawyer review sites for reviews by other people with disabilities.  Do not mistakenly assume any attorney is knowledgeable enough to represent you — experience representing people with disabilities is a must and unfortunately is not always easy to find.

Once you’ve found two to five potential attorneys, listed in order of preference, give this list to at least two family members or close friends, but make sure you have those close individuals’ phone numbers memorized.  If you are stopped, arrested, or victimized you can call your family member or friend and instruct that person to call the attorneys on your list and find one that is available to represent you.

It is also important to advocate for yourself.  Advocate and raise awareness of your disability, if you feel comfortable doing so.  Disability discrimination is still a massive issue in the United States and elsewhere.  This can often prevent people with disabilities from sharing their lives with others out of fear of judgment from employers and other community members.  It is understandable if you choose not to share your disability with the world, but if you’d like to share, there is an opportunity to communicate the strategies you are using to protect yourself to those in the disability community.  This community is large, and only by discussing these issues with people in the disability community can we tap into the well of knowledge and expertise needed to thrive with disability.

People of color with disabilities are forced to confront discrimination from a disability and racial standpoint.  Intersectionality discussions in the disability community delve into the beauty but also the complex danger that is living as a Black person with a disability.  Black members of the disability and LGBTQ communities also face violence and stigma from police and first responders.  In general, people with disabilities are in heightened danger when dealing with the police, but Black people with disabilities are targeted at even higher and more oppressively violent rates.  The disability community must remain committed to discussing protections for its members to prevent more loss of life, money, time and opportunity.

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