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Opinion

Op-Ed: It’s not just the Costco shooting. Disabled people are often killed by police

From left to right: Russell French, Paola French and their son, Kenneth French, at Universal Studios
From left to right: Russell French, Paola French and their son, Kenneth French, at Universal Studios. Kenneth, 32, was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in a Corona Costco on June 14.
(Courtesy of family)

My 19-year-old son has the face of an angel, but he lacks the cognitive ability, if lost, to ask for directions home. I worry about him continually: How will he navigate the world? Where will he live? Will he have a happy, meaningful life?

I also worry, now more than ever, about his interactions with police who don’t understand his disabilities.

This week, a couple shopping at Costco with their adult nonverbal son with intellectual disabilities was shot and their son was killed by an off-duty Los Angeles police officer. A lot about what happened is unclear, and the store’s surveillance video has not yet been released, but the story the family’s attorney gives is an achingly familiar one to my husband and me: “His father was trying to intervene and explain that his son had a mental disability. … He was not attacking him at the time the officer shot.” A lawyer for the shooter described the off-duty officer as “fighting for his life.” The party we will never hear from, of course, is the man who was shot.

Unlike the man in Costco, who was described by relatives as “a gentle giant,” my son can react to stressors with self-injurious behavior or by attacking others. A bystander once called the police when our son had a meltdown in a Rhode Island supermarket and started biting me. The officer who responded fortunately had a nephew with autism. He saw that our son had calmed down and went on his way. A few months ago, our son became aggressive toward his aide on the New York subway. The police showed up, but again we were lucky. They allowed him to calm down and go on his way without being funneled into the criminal justice system. I am grateful but worried about the next time.

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My son does not understand the law. But more urgently, the law does not understand people like him.

My son’s behavior is that of a toddler, both in his unfettered joy and his rages. He does not care if someone bumps into him, but it is also beyond his ability to apologize if he bumps into someone. He would not raise his hands if ordered to. Every response he would have to an aggressive cop would be classified as resisting arrest. He has no sense of danger, including around guns. He also has spastic involuntary movements that, to an armed police officer, could look like a lunge.

My son does not understand the law. But more urgently, the law does not understand people like him.

Magdiel Sanchez, 35, was killed when Oklahoma City police, investigating a hit and run, shot him as he sat on his porch. He was deaf and did not drop a metal pipe that he used to protect himself from stray dogs in his neighborhood. Neighbors shouted, “He can’t hear you,” multiple times to the police before he was shot.

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When Phoenix police came to the home of Michelle Cusseaux to transfer her to a mental health facility, she allegedly threatened them with a hammer and was shot dead.

Robert Ethan Saylor, a young adult with Down syndrome, loved movies and wanted to stay for the second showing of his favorite film in a shopping center in Frederick, Md. He was dragged off by theater security — all off-duty deputies — and died of suffocation in the process, his larynx broken. His last words, according to a lawsuit filed by the family, were, “Mommy, Mommy” and “it hurts.”

A transgender teen with autism, Kayden Clarke, who had been frustrated by how his autism diagnosis was creating a roadblock to his transition, was killed by Mesa, Ariz., police responding to a neighbor worried he was about to commit suicide.

It is not a crime to have a physical or intellectual disability or mental illness, but police often forcibly enter the lives of people with disabilities because their symptoms and presentations — self-stimulation, delusions, extreme anxiety, rages — aren’t understood and are interpreted as criminal behavior. Many police forces around the country understand this and are trying to address the problem. Crisis Intervention Training, which includes having special teams of people trained in mental health disorders, is becoming a popular national model. In the LAPD, each officer is required by state law to undergo a minimum of 15 hours of training “relating to law enforcement interaction with persons with mental illness, intellectual disability and substance use disorders.” The courses include “de-escalation techniques.”

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But if that off-duty officer in the Costco shooting received this mandated training, it’s hard to feel comforted by the requirement. It’s worth pointing out that in the case of Kayden Clarke, one of the officers responding to the call was a member of the CIT team, trained to de-escalate before using force.

The pertinent question raised by the Costco shooting is this: How do we protect the nation’s largest minority (people with disabilities compose 19% of the U.S. population), who are often themselves part of communities further marginalized by race, class and sexual orientation.

Those who care about the civil rights of people with disabilities will be closely watching how the Costco shooting is handled. We cannot let the fact that someone felt threatened by an unarmed man with disabilities to justify his killing. Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, puts it this way: “Living in a democracy means that the government must justify the use of coercive power against community members... There is no more coercive use of authority than a fatal police shooting.”

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Having a disability is not a crime. But until we do more to educate not just police but all who see disabilities as abnormal and frightening, we will continue to sentence innocent people to death for being who they are.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee has taught writing at Yale, Brown and Columbia. Her novel “The Evening Hero” will be published in 2020. Twitter: @MarieMyungOkLee


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