The blog of the Urban Institute
November 15, 2021

Policing Is Killing Black Disabled People. Centering Intersectionality Is Critical to Reducing Harm.

November 15, 2021

The unique harms faced by Black disabled people is missing from the mainstream conversation and national reckoning on police violence and racism following several high-profile killings by police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Of the long list of Black people killed by police, many had disabilities, including Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Laquan McDonald. (Note: we use both person-first and identity-first language throughout to acknowledge and respect the diversity of preferences in the Disability community.)

Having a disability—a term that encompasses physical, psychological, and learning differences—can raise a person’s risk of having a violent encounter with police. Black disabled people find themselves at the unique intersection of two systems of oppression: racism and ableism. Tackling the compounded harms of systemic racism and ableism in the criminal legal system requires centering the needs of Black disabled people using an intersectional lens that explicitly dismantles the multiple structures that put them at risk of harm or death.

How policing disproportionally targets and harms Black disabled people

Institutional racism and bias throughout the criminal legal system result in disproportionate harm to Black people. When police initiate stops, they are more likely to threaten and use physical force against Black people than white people, and police shootings kill Black people at twice the rate of white people.  

Ableism in the criminal legal system also results in significant harm to disabled people. Many behaviors and activities associated with disabilities are criminalized. This can result in dangerous police encounters, often exacerbated by police who lack the training and tools to help people in crisis, don’t recognize or understand disability, and rely on “command and control” tactics and excessive physical force for noncompliance. One-third to half of police use-of-force incidents involve a person with a disability, and half of the people killed by police have a disability. 

The intersection of racism and ableism add up to a higher risk of arrest, other forms of physical and mental harm, and even death for Black disabled people when they encounter police.

Gilberto Powell, a Black man with Down syndrome who uses a colostomy bag, was stopped by police and severely beaten under suspicion of having a gun. The violence Powell experienced is a product of both racism and ableism. Police officers saw a Black man with a bulge around his waistband, assumed it was a gun, and did not communicate clearly or appropriately with him.

Systems of oppression compound the harms to Black disabled people

Racism and white supremacy are inherent in our institutions, and when they intersect with ableism, this can lead to compounded and unique harms to Black people with disabilities.

How policies to address police violence can center Black disabled people 

Many policies designed to address police violence fail to adequately acknowledge and address these systems of oppression in and beyond the criminal legal system.

Politicians and activists have called for the use of various trainings to address police violence. Though training and response programs have expanded and improved, implicit bias training, crisis intervention teams, and disability education efforts have their limits. Trainings tend to vary in design, often lack an evidence base, frequently fail to acknowledge and address the intersection of race and disability, and are limited in their ability to change behavior in the long term. 

Some jurisdictions are beginning to divert certain calls for service away from police or use coresponder models, but these strategies are often narrowly focused on behavioral and mental health and fail to include many other disabilities such as autism, epilepsy, and auditory disabilities.

Though community response and coresponder programs, like Crisis Assistance Helping Out in the Streetsand Support Team Assisted Response, show promise, they are limited to responses to calls for service, often about mental health emergencies, and would not have changed what happened to Gilberto Powell, for example. 

Many jurisdictions use voluntary disability registration programs (PDF) offering disabled people or their families an avenue to register their disability with the police. But they are controversial among many disabled people because of stigma, bias, and privacy concerns—which are greater for people of color with disabilities, given the history of state control forced on Black and disabled people.

Reforms to the system are limited because US law and order systems are rooted in racism and ableism, but policymakers and other stakeholders could make a difference through the following:

Policies that address just disability or just race, or disregard their intersectionality, will fail to address the unique harms this group faces at the hands of police. Addressing these harms requires thinking bigger about how to deliver safety and protection for all within and outside of the criminal legal system.


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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 17: People participate in a protest to mark the five year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner during a confrontation with a police officer in the borough of Staten Island on July 17, 2019 in New York City. Yesterday it was announced that federal prosecutors will not charge New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Garner, who repeated the phrase "I can't breathe" almost a dozen times while being arrested for an alleged misdemeanor. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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