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
If you have recently followed the blog, you might not know about Ethan Saylor. He was a man with Down syndrome who went to the movies with a caregiver, had a misunderstanding over wanting to stay in the theater without a second ticket, and ended up dead. He died of asphyxiation; his throat was crushed when three off-duty police men tried to inappropriately remove Saylor from the theater instead of allowing the caregiver to diffuse the situation.
During that time, many people in and out of the disability community were calling for more police training, believing that such training would have altered the course of events for Saylor. I felt deeply ambivalent about the discussions on police training after the Ethan Saylor’s homicide. In fact, I saw some very real examples of how the concept of training turn into something very wrong.
Last week, many in the Down syndrome community became aware of a children’s gym called Surgent’s Elite School of Gymnastics in New Jersey that refused to allow a little boy with Down syndrome to have his fourth birthday party at their facility. When the boy’s mother went to arrange her son’s birthday, she discovered that the gym had a blanket “no special needs” policy.
The New Jersey play gym defended their “no special needs” policy because they claimed they did not have enough training.
Cases like the little boy in New Jersey are downwind casualties of the very flawed logic of training that I saw after Saylor’s death. I won’t go into the myriad reasons that I didn’t think discussing training was appropriate in the immediate aftermath of Saylor’s death, but will say generally that I think it siphoned off valuable energy that should have focused on accountability and discipline. Above all, I worried that the myopic focus on training would bolster the false logic that one needs special training or expertise to interact with a person with a disability.
I think that supporting disability training in all situations, for all reasons, is very dangerous. It subtly creates a believable barrier to understanding and inclusion. If a four-year-old boy can’t even have a birthday party without some kind of specialized staff present, then how could that boy be included in a typical classroom? Play sports? Be in public? Many can easily make this troubling leap in logic.
It is clear that the manager of the gym is not out to be a terrible person. He’s since offered to host the party, which is a step in the right direction. Yet I can’t get behind his insistence on hiring specialized staff to do it. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what kind of specialized staff would be needed for this situation. I’m sure many are thinking, oh, but maybe the boy wasn’t physically able to do what his similarly aged peers could do. The mother reported that her son had no medical restrictions. I’d hazard a guess that the boy liked and could do the kinds of activities that a birthday party at a gym would entail, or else his mother would not be pursuing the idea at all. I’ve been to plenty of kid’s gyms. Children inevitably have different ability levels, that is simply natural variation, special needs or not. Any decent staff knows how to adjust the activities so that all the children present are comfortable. Don’t mistake me, I can imagine various, specific circumstances in which a child would need some extra support in order to participate in a birthday party at a play gym. But frankly, I can imagine these situations in and out of the special needs realm.
The message, in the meantime, seems clear. Children with special needs cannot be included simply as a matter of course. In fact, it may be safer to exclude them altogether. As an aside, this safety logic was also very prevalent in the aftermath of Saylor’s death; many blamed Saylor’s mother for placing him in the supposedly dangerous situation of being out in public without her presence.
Is it such a big surprise, when some in our own disability community accept that police brutality against their own can be solely addressed with… training? This over-reliance on training sets disability apart in a way that I do not see in any other marginalized community. Imagine the words, “If only he had been trained to deal with black people,” were uttered after a race-related officer shooting. Yet, replace “black people” with “disabled people” and this sort of logic occurs every day in our schools, police departments, government, and every day conversations without enough critical examination.
It isn’t that I don’t think awareness training can be valuable. Sensitivity training for all sorts of groups, for instance, is a good thing. I don’t feel differently about disability training. Mainstream America could stand to learn what disability actually is and isn’t, and that it is a varied and diverse part of human existence. It is an unfortunate fact that many people simply are not exposed to positive and realistic depictions of disability and if training can help bridge that gap, wonderful.
Let’s just be careful. Training can only be a small part of that solution. It is hard to talk about inclusion for the sake of inclusion, accountability and discrimination because they force us to confront basic ideas of good and bad, right and wrong. These conversations are confusing sometimes and can get uncomfortable, but ounce for ounce, the amount of positive potential is much greater there than in simply slapping a training/expertise label onto the problem and walking away.
If I could get in a room with the officers who killed Saylor, I would ask them why they felt that Saylor was so different that the de-escalation techniques they surely already knew were not applicable. I would tell them that if they had dug into the basic training they already had, that Saylor could still be alive today. I’d tell them to approach every person, disability or not, as a unique and precious life.
If I could get in a room with the manager of Surgent’s Elite School of Gymnastics, I would tell him to reconsider his belief that he needs special training to run an inclusive gym. I’d tell him dig into his basic instincts for interacting with children, rather than adopting a blanket policy of exclusion out of fear. I’d tell him to approach every child, special needs or not, as a unique and precious life deserving of inclusion.
Sometimes I spend time worrying about my infant son’s future. My son with Down syndrome. My son with a disability. My son, a human being.
Among the things I worry about is that the world will see him as nothing but a problem. An anomaly, a special circumstance, some thing to be “handled” and “managed”. I worry that people will take one look at him and hold him up to a stereotype, and he’ll never have a chance to be fully human. If he matches the stereotype, everything he says or does will be a foregone conclusion. If he deviates from the stereotype, he’ll be nothing but an even greater abnormality.
My fears became reality today. Read the rest of this entry »