The Path to Equity and Justice is Diverse

By Sarah K. Lanzo

Surely the biggest news of the past month is the conviction on all charges of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the asphyxiation death of George Floyd, last year, an African American suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill in a store. In a New York Times article updated on April 12th, Shaila Dewan notes, “Law enforcement officers kill about 1,000 people a year across the United States. Since the beginning of 2005, 121 officers have been arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter in on-duty killings, according to data compiled by Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Of the 95 officers whose cases have concluded, 44 were convicted, but often of a lesser charge, he said.”

So how is this related to people with disabilities?”

In the March 2016 Ruderman Family Foundation’s “White Paper on Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability”. Authors David M. Perry, PhD and Lawrence Carter are critical of news organizations for under-reporting the numbers of those with disabilities who died at the hands of police. Even after the passage of the 2014 Death in Custody Reporting Act, officers are not required to report the disability status of those with whom they interact. Although admittedly extrapolating from a variety of studies, the 45-page report summarizes their results with this claim: “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.”

In a June 25, 2020 Time Magazine article by Abigail Abrams, the above figures are reiterated, and the fact was mentioned that police tend to have a “compliance culture” which sees individuals who do not “respond appropriately” to shouted commands of an officer to be a threat. That makes those who are deaf, autistic, have mental health disabilities or other issues that prevent immediate compliance to be especially vulnerable to a violent response.

She notes that in Eugene, Oregon, a program that was also adopted in Olympia, Washington, Denver, Colorado and Oakland, California, the 17 percent of 911 and non-emergency calls relating to mental health, substance use or homelessness are rerouted to a team of medics and crisis-care workers, who respond to such calls instead of—not alongside—police. In Eugene, about six-tenths of one percent of 24,000 calls per year eventually required additional police response. This practice means police departments can better use their enforcement resources to combat crimes.

This makes sense to me: let health professionals respond to emergencies that are based in individual’s disabilities, not their criminal intent, and those death statistics will go down.


Sarah K. Lanzo is the Director of Independent Living of Niagara County, a member of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. Family of Agencies. They empower individuals with any disabilities to gain the information and resources needed to improve their quality of life and participate in society on an equal basis. For more information about ILNC's services and programs please contact: (716) 284-4131, ext. 200.