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.
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.
- Environmental injustice, such as elevated lead levels and air pollution, can lead to increased prevalence of intellectual disabilities and asthma in communities of color.
- Systemic racism and individual biases can lead to underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis of disabilities for Black students, and disability diagnosis is sometimes used to segregate students of color.
- The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately harms disabled students of color putting them in contact with the juvenile legal system.
- Health care has a history of racism, and structural racism and implicit bias are prevalent throughout our physical and mental health care systems today. These structural inequalities can lead to lower access, frequency, and quality of care for Black disabled people.
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:
- mandating data collection and reporting on police contacts of people with disabilities and supporting research on the intersection of racism and ableism
- focusing on reducing the footprint of police and increasing community-driven solutions led by Black disabled people
- considering calls for abolition and investment outside of the criminal legal system from Black disabled activists
- investing in Black disabled people and supporting their leadership in conversations and decisionmaking through local community organizations and groups like the Black Disability Collective.
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.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.