Autistic people may have poor eye contact or engage in repetitive behaviors, which may strike police officers as suspicious. They also might be slow to react to police commands, which can cause a routine stop to spin out of control. In Greenville, South Carolina, one news account tells of an autistic man named Tario Anderson: “Officers said they saw Anderson walking on the sidewalk and tried him to question him. They said when they put a spotlight on Anderson, he put his hands in his pockets, started walking the other way and eventually started running from them. He was shocked with a Taser and arrested because he didn’t follow the officers’ commands.”[i] Anderson is also African American, which adds another dimension to the story. In the wake of incidents in which African Americans had died at the hands of white police officers, one father wrote of his autistic son: “What if my son pulling back from a cop is seen as an act of aggression? What if a simple repetitive motion is mistaken for an attempt at physical confrontation? If a cop is yelling at my son and he doesn’t respond because he doesn’t understand, what’s stopping the cop from murdering my boy in cold blood?”[ii]
I know that I am not alone when it comes to worrying that a loved one with autism, or a developmental disability, or mental health challenges will one day encounter the wrong cop — one who won't recognize that special needs people often require patience. I recently spoke about my worries concerning my son on CNN and the response from viewers who empathized with my fears was overwhelming. One email was particularly moving.
"I saw you today on CNN. While I was trying to process the horrible news that just doesn't seem to stop, I heard you mention your concerns for your son. When you began to speak about his autism and how much you worry about the constant possibility of him being shot for being a young Black man and an autistic young man, my tears spilled over. My son is 30 and autistic. My son is white but he is your son. Your son is Black but he is my son. Today (shown on CNN crawl) in Jerusalem, the Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian man who they later learned had Autism. I am Jewish but that man is my son. That man is OUR son.
The intersection of so many kinds of lives binds us together. We must find a way for all of our sons and daughters to be safe. To be loved and safe.
I pray for reconciliation, recognition, and rebuilding of the shredded social fabric of the United States. Thank you for sharing your story.” - Faye
I was truly touched by Faye’s words, and I do believe America would be a much better place if more people could see the world through eyes as honest and loving as hers. But every time I turn on the news and see the story of an Elijah McClain, an innocent, unarmed Black man who was murdered by police, I am reminded that my son is not Faye’s son. My son is a Black man, and to racist cops that makes him only one thing — a suspect.Chelsey Cox at USA Today:
About one-third of people killed by police have a mental or physical disability, McDeid said. A Washington Post tally found nearly a quarter of those shot and killed by police had a mental illness.
Six years ago, Dontre Hamilton, who had schizophrenia, was shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer who had not received any specialized training on interacting with people with mental illness. After George Floyd's death, people of color with disabilities were inspired to march for Hamilton and others, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
A study conducted in 2019 by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment found that people with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault. People with disabilities were the victims of sexual or aggravated assault, robbery and rape at twice the rate of people without disabilities, according to a summary released in 2017 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
One in five surveyed said their disability made them a target.
“Clearly people can tell by interacting with me or observing me that I'm not ... normal by ableist definitions of normal, even if they wouldn't know the specific language to use. But many people would think, ‘that person is a target,’ ” said [Lydia X. Z.] Brown, who has autism and survived a near-sexual assault.
In a Washington survey of people with disabilities who said they experienced harassment, only 12% said they filed a police report. Distrust of police was one reason, according to a report by the D.C. Office of Human Rights. The office found that people with disabilities are publicly targeted for harassment more often than any other marginalized group aside from immigrants.