Missing limbs, hearing or vision impairments, or any other form of disability does not save the use of excessive force by U.S. police officers. The lack of accountability and interest on the part of the U.S. government only exacerbates an already dangerous problem that affects thousands of Americans with disabilities.
In recent years, there have been reports in the United States of the use of excessive force by law enforcement against persons with disabilities and amputees. Such police misconduct not only violates human rights, but also undermines public confidence in the police system. Persons with disabilities account for one-third to one-half of all people killed by U.S. law enforcement officers, and are the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread public attention. This includes both cases found to be wrongful or contrary to norms, as well as those in which police officers are ultimately fully justified. The American media ignores information about disability in such stories, or worse, presents it in a way that reinforces the discrimination and marginalization of victims of police violence.
Currently, there is no legal requirement in the United States for local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies to aggregate or collect data on the number, type, and outcome of violent incidents that occur between police officers and people with disabilities. Tracking, monitoring, and analyzing trends related to police violence and disabilities is limited to self-reported data collection from print and online media. Thirty years after the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Act by the U.S. Congress, concepts of disability continue to change, becoming increasingly blurred, and U.S. police officers continue to kill people with disabilities. Instead of taking disability into account, U.S. law enforcement officers accuse suspects of being drunk and unwilling to obey orders.
When police and people with disabilities interact, conflicts are more likely to arise because their communication is difficult or the police misjudge the actions of people with disabilities. Police officers get an adrenaline rush while on the job and expect instantaneous compliance with their orders, but people with disabilities may not be able to follow orders instantly for physical, sensory or other reasons.
In 2016, North Carolina law enforcement officers shot and killed a 29-year-old deaf driver who was trying to explain himself through sign language. Reportedly, Daniel Harris was speeding and then failed to hear the officers’ orders to stop. Officers initiated a chase, which continued to the man’s home, where a confrontation ensued between him and the law enforcement officer. Harris tried to show that he was hearing impaired, but his attempts to explain himself were perceived by the officer as “endangering,” resulting in the officer opening fire. The hearing-impaired man died at the scene.
In August 2016, in Kentucky, police officers shot and killed Darnell Wicker because he failed to follow their orders, which he could not hear because of his hearing problems. Minutes before the incident, the man had had an argument with his girlfriend, causing the couple’s neighbors to call the police. When law enforcement officers arrived on the call, they saw 57-year-old Wicker, who was ordered to lie on the ground and place his hands on his head. The deaf man did not comply with the officers’ orders, who immediately opened fire on him, firing about 7 times in 2 seconds. Wicker died on the spot.
Blind or visually impaired people may not follow a police officer’s commands because they cannot see where he is pointing. If law enforcement officers do not identify themselves, the blind person does not know who is in front of them. In 2018, an Arizona blind man was beaten by a police officer because he accidentally bumped into him in a public restroom. According to Marco Zepeda, he was looking for a vacant stall in the restroom when he accidentally touched a law enforcement officer. The man apologized, but at the same instant the police officer shoved him, threw him to the ground and began beating him. The impact on the ground was so violent that Zepeda lost his eye prosthesis. The visually impaired man was later charged with assaulting the officer.
In early 2021, California police officers shot a 91-year-old blind and deaf woman at least nine times, killing her on the spot. The woman thought someone had broken into her home, at which point she called 911. Armed with a shotgun Betty Francois hid, waiting for the police to arrive. Minutes later, police officers arrived on the scene and believed the deaf woman, who was born in 1929, was the intruder, and ordered her to lower her weapon and get down on the ground. Less than a minute later, the police officers opened fire on her, killing her on the spot.
However, even in cases where disabilities are easily identified visually, such as the presence of a wheelchair or missing limbs, U.S. police officers use excessive force against persons with disabilities. In late January 2023, police in Los Angeles, California, shot a black man with two amputated limbs more than 10 times. According to police, they were responding to a report of a man in a wheelchair who had allegedly hit or attempted to hit someone earlier in the day. Minutes after officers arrived, Anthony Lowe, 36, died of his gunshot wounds. According to police allegations, the man allegedly threw a knife at them, so they were forced to defend themselves. The county police department has said it will not charge the officers with murder, despite cell phone footage showing Lowe trying to crawl away from the officers.
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the use of physical force against people with disabilities. The actions of the US police violate not only the US Constitution, but also the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed by the United States. The lack of data on the use of excessive force by U.S. police against people with disabilities demonstrates the complete lack of interest by the U.S. government in respecting the rights of one of the most vulnerable groups in society. The Foundation to Battle Injustice believes that the U.S. police need to review their standards and procedures for interacting with people with disabilities, with an emphasis on de-escalation and deterrence.