Two years ago, three off-duty police officers killed Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome. Frankly, I’ve said all I feel that I can say about Saylor. You can read what I’ve written here. In short, I believe his death was an act of police brutality for which no one has been willing to hold the three deputies accountable.
It is not so much that police officers are involved in violent exchanges, or that they may take wrong actions, purposeful or not. Law enforcement officers are human and flawed and our nation is polarized, to expect any kind of utopia in our current times would be naive. Perfection is not the goal, and I accept that.
What I cannot accept is that law enforcement in our country is increasingly above reproach.
A court case has been weaving its way through the system that has the potential to allow the police to be held even less accountable than they already are. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera thinks that the ADA does not apply to police interactions. Despite that a moderate panel on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Herrera (read: it was not some kind of “liberal activist” panel), the Supreme Court has decided to review the case. An effort under the hashtag #carenotkill is pushing Herrera to drop his case, and many groups have signed onto the effort.
Stop for a moment and consider what this could mean. Have Down syndrome and take longer to process an officer’s request? Doesn’t matter. Are deaf and don’t respond when verbally called by an officer? Doesn’t matter. Have limited mobility? Have a mental health condition? None of it matters if the ADA does not apply to the police. The police could be legally protected from citizens should they harm an individual by failing to take into account his or her known disability.
I know it is unpopular to question cops in this country. I know that we want to think of cops as selfless heroes, paragons of righteous public servitude. I’m sure the majority of police officers want to be that, as well. But look, they are human beings. Human beings who get scared, have biases, and get angry. The answer to that is not to rubber stamp everything they do. The answer to that is to create standards for officer conduct. Our country endows our police force with many, many tools. We, as a society, give law enforcement the power to lay hands on their fellow citizens. We arm our officers with weapons. We legally protect them in times of doubt.
Where then, is the other side of that coin? Why are police so often investigated in-house instead of by an independent agency? Why is it nearly impossible to get a criminal indictment against a police officer? The ADA is the force behind things like wheelchair accessibility, inclusive education, and equal access to healthcare. These are essential rights. I don’t think it is so far flung for the ADA to also apply to police officers before they decide to use force against this country’s disabled citizens.
So on the two year anniversary of Ethan Saylor’s death, let’s think about how many others have been harmed or killed at the hands of our country’s law enforcement. Some officers have been held accountable, others have been practically applauded. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Kelly Thomas. Teresa Sheehan. Antonio Martinez. Kajieme Powell. Brian Sterner. Rachel Thompson. This list can go on nearly indefinitely, because they are not isolated freak incidents. There is a steady level of unnecessary police violence that we can’t even measure because most law enforcement agencies resist efforts to monitor their use of force. There are too many protections for bad police officers who are left to poison the system. The most marginalized amongst us suffer most, but cases like Michael Bell’s show that no one is completely immune. Law enforcement in this country needs higher and better enforced standards, not fewer.
We cannot change the past, but what will we say in its aftermath? Will we fail to ask more from the men and women charged to protect us, even from ourselves? Will we continue to accept that a disproportionate section of the largest minority group in our country are destined to die?
Get involved. #JusticeForEthan. #CareNotKill