Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Standing At The Intersection of Adolescence, Race, and Disability

Police badge, credit Wiki media commons
This post may wander a bit. Recent events have made me  very emotional, shocked and sad.

Our son is twelve.  His father, sister and I have spent a major part of his life trying to meet a single goal before his thirteenth birthday. We have been trying to ensure he is equipped to survive his adolescence without being killed in a catastrophic encounter with police. He has been fortunate, and so far, safe. But recent events make it clear that we must act in some way to change the way things are or chances are, he may not be safe in the future.

When I realized that roughly 70% of people with disabilities encountered law enforcement more than once in their lifetimes, learned how many were victims of abuse and crime, and how many disabled males of color died in such encounters, I went to Annapolis to ask for an autism training bill for first responders. I later came to the realization that the training concept is inherently flawed and limited in its success.  For police officers, in particular, training them in awareness of autism and how someone autistic reacts to sirens, strobing lights, and people shouting at them wasn't the solution to the problem of keeping our son and his nonspeaking peers from accidentally being shot or wrongfully arrested in a police encounter.  Particularly for autistic and other neurodivergent males of color, police training in other states did not deter or reduce catastrophic encounters. Understand that  Freddie Gray was diagnosed with disabilities resulting from lifetime exposure to lead paint poisoning common to the low-income housing in West Baltimore. Freddie Gray was neurodivergent. His death is not counted as a Black disabled catastrophic encounter death but it should be.

 I have recently realized I must accept the idea that just about the only way to ensure our nonspeaking autistic son isn't harmed is instilling in him that he must avoid the police as much as possible.

The only legislative goal that will reduce catastrophic encounters with law enforcement for neurodivergent males in general and neurodivergent Black and brown males, in particular, is legislation aimed at not placing them in the path of police, to begin with.

I never thought I would have to consider how to teach my son to avoid police.  But there is no denying that recent events demonstrate race relations in this area of modern society have reversed 50 years, and we are now living in a dangerously polarized country. So here we are with our sweet son, standing at this intersection of racism, ableism, and disability. We are looking for breadcrumbs we can leave to aid him in preserving his own life  and the thought is frightening. So frightening that I can say the only thing that frightens me more is the rising number of autistic school children being arrested for school infractions and forced into the criminal justice system .

How do we teach him that the safest way to deal with law enforcement is to avoid engaging them at all?  Even if he needs help. Even if they seem kind and appear to understand he is unable to speak. Despite what he's been presented by well-meaning people who don't know what it means to be a Black man in America. Because if he meets a good cop one day, he may meet the one that hates him the next, and that could end his life. Too many others have died because they could not speak and were not provided with the means to respond when police ordered  them to do so.
The bullet-riddled windshield of Timothy Russell's car shows where some of the 137 bullets police fired at the car landed. (credit: Marvin Fong/The Plain Dealer)
One of my main goals for the remainder of my life is lowering the odds that my only son will die  by pushing our community to rethink what the role of law enforcement should be in our lives and to support efforts to remove law enforcement from inappropriate roles in the lives of autism families so we are able to  avoid police engagement as much as humanly possible. I am tired of watching our people die.

We are traumatized and tired of being helpless witnesses to the lives destroyed and lost in such encounters.  Freddie Gray,  Matthew Ajibade, Tario Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones. It is the list of the dead and injured that just keeps getting longer by the month while the criminal justice system keeps failing them and our entire race, first by allowing them to come to harm, second by allowing those who harmed them to not be made responsible for their actions, and third, by  blaming the victims in order to absolve the perpetrators. I continue to repeat that even someone who is suspected of committing a crime has the right to be safely arrested and tried by a jury of his peers. Police are never supposed to be executioners.

Knowing police officers who sully the uniform will not be held accountable for any wrongdoing, regardless of how much evidence of their guilt is apparent is soul destroying. We've been swallowing this bitter bill for my entire life. It is a spiritual struggle  to continue to defiantly declare one's right to exist and human right to humane treatment knowing this is true. Here is one of many examples of justice denied.

Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo mounted a car that 5 other police officers had riddled with bullets after "confusing the car backfiring with a gunshot"  and continued shooting down into the windshield of said car until the two already wounded victims, Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, where dead. Officer Brelo was acquitted of any wrongdoing. 137 bullets were not, in a judge's opinion, excessive use of force.  If you believe that compliance of a traffic stop would have changed the conclusion of this encounter, then you are deceiving yourselves. If the moment the car backfired, the knee-jerk reaction was to shoot with impunity,  this act was driven by the presumption that Black suspects are dangerous criminals who should be shot. That is racial profiling. Which makes this a hate crime. This was never going to be an arrest. It was an execution.  Understand why we fear for our son. If you don't understand and don't act to help everyone fighting to change this deadly sequence of events, more will die.

This week the Supreme Court ruled in favor of San Francisco in the case of City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, overturning the decisions of all lower courts and placing all disabled people at risk. Specifically, they ruled that police who forcibly enter the premises and shoot a mental health patient have qualified immunity from litigation. This sets a legal precedent that weakens ADA protections despite the court's attempt to bypass the impact on ADA issue and enables further cases of excessive use of force when dealing with neurodivergent people in general and mental health consumers in particular.

I have already pointed out  here  that both Paul Childs and Stephon Watts were shot dead by police officers who had autism training, knew them, and had even helped them in the past. A police officer being familiar with your son's autism, knowing your son doesn't use verbal speech, being trained to approach and manage neurodivergent people doesn't protect them from being shot by those very police officers later on.

Jurors in the trial of the New Orleans police officers who shot multiple
victims including the Madison brothers inspecting Danziger bridge. Credit
Michael DeMocker NOLA Media
If I seem pessimistic about what is happening it is because even in cases where video evidence of wrongdoing supports witness accounts,  and even in cases where convictions are handed down, inevitably, as in the Supreme Court decision in San Francisco v Sheehan, justice eludes the victim. The conviction of the New Orleans police officers who shot among others 40-year-old autistic Ronald Madison and his brother Lonnie, who was trying to walk him over the bridge and out of New Orleans after Katrina, was overturned and they have now been granted a new trial. We all know these men will never see prison. Ronald Madison was a gentle person, loved by his family and neighbors. His brother refused to leave New Orleans without him and remained behind to help lead Ronald out after the storm because he didn't understand why he had to leave his home. It seems now that no one will ever answer for the innocent lives taken that day either.

If you ask my opinion of possible solutions to keep our autistic offspring of color safe by avoiding unnecessary engagement with law enforcement, I'll respond that I have a list. Here is part of that list

1. Retrain 911 operators to clearly distinguish the difference between a mental health crisis call and a law enforcement call. Do NOT use police officers as mental health support staff to transport MH consumers in crisis to help facilities. 

2. Train parents to properly request an ambulance and mental health crisis support; train loved ones and caregivers not to call the police unless a weapon is involved.

3. Remove the use of police and school resource officers (SROs) from the chain of school discipline and prohibit the profiling of disabled K12 students through files maintained by SROs, as they are neither qualified psychologists or psychiatrists.

4. Block school administration from calling the police to arrest students for school-related infractions and fine them if they do so. This holds them accountable for not providing staffing support for disabled students who require it.

5. Ensure that any incident involving the arrest of disabled students is automatically reviewed by that state's department of education's office of civil rights to assess the degree of violation of the student's civil rights and ensure the student is provided with properly trained classroom  support staff per IDEA .

6.  Establish grassroots mental health crisis support teams and  peer-run respite and crisis centers for MH consumers. This will increase respite for MH consumers and families, averting  crises where police might be called to homes or schools for interventions outside the scope of law enforcement                                                                                                                                                                                           .

I must continue my efforts to find a way to explain this all to my son and together we must ensure that even after we, his parents, are gone he knows how to survive as a nonspeaking  neurodivergent male of color in this increasingly corrosive world of hate.

God help us both.
Why Autism Training For Law Enforcement Does Not Work
What We Lose When Police Blame Victims For Their Own Deaths
Blow to ADA of Supreme Court Decision in San Francisco v Sheehan
Cleveland officer not guilty over deaths of two people shot at 137 times by police
Reversal of Danziger Bridge convictions a 'bitter pill' for Hurricane Katrina survivors


  1. Thank you for writing powerfully about the subject. The crimes against people with disabilities are over looked by society because the society see no value in the Disabled individual. We are still an raceist, ableist, sexist, militaristic society; "a corrosive world of hate." All those 'good people' need to own their complicity.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It is infuriating and terrifying. I have had two encounters with police, one in Canada and one in the U.S. Both were intimidating but I never felt like I had to fear for my life. Were I a person of colour and/or more obviously disabled/mentally ill I imagine things would have been very different and that is a huge problem.

  3. If we would stop involuntarily committing everybody for everything, maybe we can move forward and stop holding our idiot society back...

  4. I agree with your post. I find your blog right on with most all points. I disagree only on some tangents. I will tell you that I have worked for 20 years to keep police out of our lives and no good would come of it 99% of the time. Even most neurotypical young people do better avoiding the police if possible. Sadly, with many of our children, they cannot avoid. Mine did not and I could not stop it after certain point, Hopefully you will be more successful with Mustafa.