Many organisations concerned about violations of civil rights and police brutality put out guides for civilians, providing a framework for interacting with law enforcement. These guides are usually designed to help people safeguard their civil rights and avoid police brutality while smoothing interactions with law enforcement as much as possible. The idea is that, well, people are going to come into contact with law enforcement, so they might as well have some tips on making those interactions minimally traumatic and upsetting1.
For people with disabilities, interactions with law enforcement sometimes go very wrong, very fast. We are denied interpreters, our mobility devices are taken away, we are Tased, we are beaten, we are shot. I’ve noticed an uptick in reporting on really disturbing interactions between people with disabilities and law enforcement in recent weeks, and I had a grand plan of linking to some guides just as a general resource for readers, except that I noticed that most of these guides have some extremely glaring holes when it comes to disability. They are obviously written for nondisabled people, and a lot of them have advice that is just plain not helpful, at all.
‘Look the officer in the eye at all times.’
‘Don’t fidget or twitch.’
‘Speak clearly and evenly, in a neutral tone.’
‘Hold your hands where the officer can see them.’
‘Don’t make any sudden movements.’
‘Watch your language.’
These are all things that these guides say. And I suspect that, were I to go to one of these organisations and say ‘hey, you know, these guidelines are actually not super helpful for people with disabilities,’ they would say ‘well, you should inform the officer that you are disabled as soon as you come into contact’ or ‘you should carry cards about your disabilities and hand them to law enforcement.’ Except that people with disabilities do this and we are still abused by law enforcement.
The outcome of interactions with law enforcement is highly inconsistent and is very much tied in with intersectional issues like race. Let’s say you have a situation where a person who uses a cane is pulled over and ordered to get out of the car. The person says ‘ok, but, Officer, I want you to know that I use a cane for mobility. It is not a weapon, but I do need it to stand and walk safely, and I wanted you to know that before I got out of the car.’ The race of the person being pulled over shouldn’t affect the way the officer responds to that, but it will, and the colour of your skin should not determine whether you get your mobility device seized or not.
The idea that you just tell the Nice Officer about your disabilities and everything is ok is quaint and all, but really does not work out in practice. I’m trying to imagine a situation where I say ‘Officer, I’m not trying to give you the sideye, I just have a very difficult time making eye contact with people.’ Yeah. That’s going to go over real well. How many cases of ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ do there need to be before we acknowledge that the ‘communication breakdown’ here is not on the side of people with disabilities, but on the side of law enforcement?
There are actually guidelines that police officers are supposed to follow when interacting with people with disabilities. There’s a video series from the United States government, and here’s another guide from the United States, based on the Americans With Disabilities Act (thanks for finding this, abby jean!). This document is pretty clear about the fact that, for example, interpreters need to be provided2. But then: ‘Your agency’s policy explains how to obtain interpreters or other communication aids and services when needed.’ This places the burden on an individual police department or agency. What if a police department doesn’t have a disability policy? What if officers for a particular agency aren’t provided with any training in interacting with people with disabilities? What happens then?
All of the guides I could find for interacting with police officers demonstrated a whole lot of ableism. They were structured and predicated around the idea that certain things are always possible, like, say, ‘speaking in an even tone’ or ‘not fidgeting’ and really didn’t provide any suggestions for those of us who actually do not find these things possible. Such guides seem to me to place the responsibility for bad interactions on civilians rather than on law enforcement, and that’s especially evident in the way that they just completely ignore disability, and the best advice they can provide on race is basically ‘watch your tone.’
I know that many of these organisations are approaching this problem from both sides. They’re providing civilians with information to help them survive now while also working with law enforcement agencies to establish better policies and programs. They’re not arguing that these interactions are one sided and are actively promoting better training for law enforcement, trying to address issues like racial and class disparities in policing.
But one thing I see repeatedly being left out, not just from guides for civilians, but also in pushes for police reform, is better training for interacting with people with disabilities. I see lip service occasionally, usually in the wake of really awful cases like Deaf folks being shot for ‘refusing’ to comply with verbal orders from police, but I don’t see much follow through. Some disability rights organisations are working with individual police departments; I’ve actually interacted directly with several police officers and provided advice and suggestions on making encounters with people with disabilities go more smoothly, but this reduces the situation to individual cases. It’s good that something rather than nothing is happening, but I would like to see nationwide policy initiatives, like very clear requirements that all law enforcement officers receive appropriate training in working with people with disabilities.
And I want to see those training programs designed by people with disabilities and law enforcement working together.
- Of course, such guides leave out some important topics, like who is most likely to come into contact with law enforcement, and the fact that for some people, even following these guides to the letter will not result in a positive outcome, because the deck is stacked against them from the start. A Nice White Lady and a young Native American man being separately pulled over for speeding, for example, will be treated very differently, whether or not both follow the guidelines. ↩
- But only sometimes! Other times, like ’emergencies,’ it’s ok to plow on ahead without one. ↩