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Police Need to Be Held Accountable for Attacks on the Disabled

One day last January, a resident of Frederick County named Robert Ethan Saylor went to see Zero Dark Thirty. When it was over, he briefly left the theater, then decided to return and see it again. The manager called security, and three off-duty deputies, moonlighting at the mall, came in to confront Saylor. He swore at them and refused to leave. The police grabbed him, put him on the ground and eventually handcuffed him. What happened next is a little unclear, but Saylor suffered a fracture in his throat cartilage and subsequently died of asphyxiation. The death was ruled a homicide, but no charges were filed.

Last December in San Diego, Antonio Martinez was walking to work at his family’s bakery. It was a chilly night and Martinez pulled up his hoodie. Some police drove by, looking for a domestic violence suspect. The officers pulled over and ordered him to stop. When he didn’t, they pepper sprayed him and beat him with their truncheon.

In 2009, in Mobile, AL, Antonio Love felt sick and went into a Dollar General store to use the bathroom. When he didn’t come out after awhile, the store manager called the police. The officers knocked on the bathroom door and ordered him to come out, but got no response. They sprayed pepper spray under the door, opened it with a tire iron, then tasered Love repeatedly.

Love is developmentally delayed and deaf. He couldn’t hear the police knocking on the door. Saylor and Martinez have Down syndrome. Martinez just didn’t stop when ordered. Saylor was verbally aggressive but made no threatening moves.

Disability advocates have been understandably outraged about these cases. As the father of a boy with Down syndrome, I worry about my son’s safety should he ever be confronted by the police. It’s good to know that the Department of Justice has launched an investigation into whether Saylor’s civil rights were violated. A petition on Change.org asking Governor O’Malley of Maryland to investigate now has over 330,000 signatures.

I support the calls for independent oversight and better training so that police officers can recognize disabilities and know how to respond appropriately. Too often, police respond to odd behavior as dangerous, and deploy “non-lethal” force. Just last June, a naked 11-year-old autistic girl was tasered as she wandered down the highway in Oregon. She survived. A year ago, in Seattle, a man with bipolar disorder was not so lucky and died after being tasered by police. The specifics of how to respond to people with disabilities can be corrected through education efforts within police departments. We can also push to hold police accountable for their actions against people with disabilities.

But these cases raise much bigger questions that should concern everyone. When people disobey orders of the police, what should happen? Should they be physically attacked? Should they be tased, pepper sprayed, or beaten? What if they are innocent? What if they are non-threatening? We must balance the needs of police to protect themselves and their communities against our legal rights.

Do we have the right to ignore a police officer? The law is a little unclear and varies by state. According to criminal defense attorney Richard Hutt, in Illinois, non-compliance is not generally a criminal act (or non-action). However, “resisting or obstructing a Peace Officer” is a Class A misdemeanor. If the police are investigating a crime, even if a crime in which you are not involved, they have the authority to stop and ask you questions. You have the right to ask whether you are being detained and whether you are free to go. Then, if no arrest follows, you are free to go. But if you don’t happen to know the correct procedure, police have enormous latitude to respond to non-compliant individuals as they see fit.

These three cases demonstrate that the balance between police powers and civil liberties has swung dangerously askew. Cole, Saylor, and Martinez serve as warning signs that we are losing our protections. Strip away the explanation of disability and reconsider each incident. After the Martinez beating, the San Diego Sheriff’s department admitted their mistake. Spokesperson Jan Caldwell said, “It was a dark night. There was a non-compliant person that was hiding his face and hiding his hands. It’s clear in the light of day that this man had a disability, but the deputy at the time didn’t know that.” Blaine Young, the president of the board of commissioners in Frederick County, Maryland, similarly blames non-compliance for Saylor’s death. Young said, “If people get in trouble and would just do what the officers say, we wouldn’t have any incidents.”

According to Caldwell, if you don’t have a disability, but are walking down the street on a chilly night, wearing a hoodie and hiding your hands, any amount of non-compliance merits a truncheon to the head and pepper spray in the eyes. According to Young, it is Saylor’s fault for not listening that led to his death over the price of a movie ticket. And Antonio Love was just a black man in the bathroom for too long.

But these kinds of incidents also happen to people who are not disabled. Earlier this summer, a boy was tasered for giving police a “dehumanizing stare,” leading to an incident no more justified than the beating of Antonio Martinez. Last Wednesday, an award-winning artist was caught putting graffiti on an abandoned building. He ran, he was tasered, and he died.

We can start pushing the pendulum back toward a more free society. We can balance our safety and our civil liberties against the safety of our first responders.

First, police must stop thinking of their tasers, pepper spray, and truncheons as a first-resort solution. Deploying a weapon, any weapon, must require a potentially dangerous situation.

Second, we must push for increased emphasis on non-violent training programs for those who are sworn to protect and serve. Police need more training in defusing situations by communicating and by staying calm, not by shooting 40,000 volts through the body or launching pepper spray into the eyes.

Finally, accountability must be part of equation. This is not just an abstract problem. Robert Ethan Saylor is dead. The men who killed him went back to work after their boss said they did nothing wrong. There must be consequences for people who choose force instead of patience.