Disability and The Police in the USA

By: A.C.

The more that I read about the political situation in America the more I am reminded of Darwin’s Book “On the Origin of Species”.

Darwin posited that animals evolve to suit their environment and evolve certain characteristics as we now know for instance in the Galapagos. So, what has evolution to do with the USA, and Political Thought there? 

Given that the news we receive regularly points out Police discrimination against Black, Minority and Ethnic groups, and instead of evolving compassion and understanding it appears that small –town Police Forces are not evolving in any way.

In fact it seems as though they are remaining stubbornly stuck in the Pioneering Wild West. One group that suffers because of this cowboy style training which seems to date from the early days of Hollywood, are the disabled.

Police in America, especially in the Local Police forces, of which there are about 13, 000 not including the various Federal Agencies, Intelligence, Security or Customs and Border Patrols, which all have been stretched by budget, education and number. Clearly for training standards, co-operation and judicial oversight, that many agencies makes for a morass of legal difficulty and probably injustice.

“More than 12,000 local police departments were operating in the United States during 2013. A local police department is a general-purpose law enforcement agency, other than a sheriffs’ office, that is operated by a unit of local government, such as a town, city, township, or county. Tribal police are classified as local police in Bureau of Justice Statistics data collections.”

Charles Ramsey of Politicifact writes

“But that includes everything from college campus patrols, to sheriffs, to local police, to federal agents. For strictly local law enforcement, police and sheriff departments with armed officers, the total is closer to 15,400, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Justice statistics.

Those are the kinds of departments involved in some of the more prominent deadly encounters with police in the past few years.”

Still, 15,400 is a big number, and half of those departments have fewer than 10 officers.

These smaller units face some real challenges. David Weisburd, executive director of the Center for Evidence-based Crime Policy at George Mason University, said while some do fine work, the quality ranges widely. “There is little consistency in training or procedures across them,” Weisburd said. “There are many departments that simply poorly train and lead their officers.”

Usually a Local Police Officer in Small Town America should have a two year college degree, which is difficult to quantify in UK “College” or University terms. However two years of community college study implies that the graduate is of better education than those who have no college degree. 

Training of Police in the USA is based on protecting the officer, domination of the situation and getting the “suspect” to comply with shouted or sometimes screamed commands all the while whilst pointing loaded firearms or tazers at the suspect. So even traffic stops, or arriving at incidents where someone is not capable of hearing, understanding or is delusional will potentially result in a fatal outcome.

Aleem Maqbool, a BBC correspondent has written and filmed an in–depth study of how the disabled are simply ignored in America by Officers who regard the ignoring of their commands as “not complying” and then they often shoot innocent people who have committed no crime.  I highly recommend this long read by Maqbool which highlights many incidents of fatal shooting or other similar fatalities caused by these officers who are trained in this domination theory.

He writes:

“Already in 2018, across the US, at least 136 people with a disability are known to have been killed by police officers, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post and analysis of local media reports.

In many countries the police would be the last resort when people are going through mental health crises but in the US, they are often the first to respond because of the lack of more specialised agencies.

And when I began to look at these interactions between police and disabled people in different parts of the country, clear patterns began to emerge. Adam’s story may be extreme, but some aspects of it are repeated time and time again.”

It is gratifying to note that in Scotland Police Scotland have a completely different way of dealing with people who are suffering mental illness, or are disabled. 

Chief Inspector Alan Bowater, Area Commander for South West Glasgow, said, “Our goal is to help vulnerable individuals feel calm, safe and reduce the number of people in crisis needing to be taken to places of safety for assessment.  

“Street triage is a proven tool for stronger partnership understanding and working which provides the best service to our community and most importantly, to the person in need of care.

“Our plan is to use street triage to create a better understanding of mental health for officers and enable them to have the ability to seek specialist advice so better judgements can be made on the street about patient needs.”

AS our Police – in the main – remain unarmed,  it is reassuring, or maybe hopeful,  that training and awareness of Police in Scotland is designed to make all officers aware of the differences in bizarre drug–induced behaviour, which need medical intervention, and understanding impairment, in order to communicate effectively , and whether that impairment is hidden or visible.

Maqbool makes it clear that in Small Town America, if you are disabled, or having a psychotic episode, and come to the attention of the Police, there is a good chance you could end up dead.

For those registered with the BBC , you can listen to a  Radio Podcast from the BBC World Service.

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