LEAD initiative will reform the way police interact with people with disabilities
In December 1993, two days after Christmas, Doris Washington from Harrisburg, Pa., was cooking in her kitchen when she heard a scream from her front yard. Remembering her 18-year-old autistic son John was outside playing, she ran to see what was wrong. She was horrified to find her son in handcuffs, with his face pinned to the ground by two police officers, who dislocated his shoulder in the process of apprehending him. They told Doris they received reports of a peeping-Tom in the neighborhood and, falsely, suspected John.
In September 2020, the mother of Linden Cameron, a 13-year-old boy from Salt Lake City, Utah, called 9-1-1 asking for a crisis intervention team to respond because her son, who is autistic, was having a mental health crisis. She feared her son could become violent and she needed help. She specifically requested a crisis intervention team as police officers increased his anxiety because his father was killed by police earlier in the year. Despite this request, three police officers responded to the call, which resulted in Linden being shot 11 times and seriously injured.
In March 2019, the parents of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old Black man from State College, Pa., called 9-1-1 asking for a mental health check of their son. Osaze was autistic, schizophrenic and had a history of anxiety. The family was concerned he was going to hurt himself or others. The three officers who responded to the call to serve the involuntary mental health warrant found Osaze in his apartment with a knife. Within 30 seconds, the officers shot and killed Osaze after he approached and failed to comply with the orders from the officers. For people with disabilities, interacting with law enforcement can be dangerous, and even deadly. This danger increases drastically if that person is a person of color and is having a mental health crisis.
The stories listed above are just a few tragic examples of police exchanges that turned violent when interacting with people with disabilities. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), police have become first responders for non-criminal complaints, such as people experiencing mental health crises. In addition, a recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that compared with the general public, people with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violent crimes. When these interactions occur, they are more likely to turn violent. Data from the Ruderman Family Foundation found that people with disabilities made up between one-third and one-half of all individuals shot by law enforcement officers in 2015.
The demands on law enforcement are great. As the International Association of Chiefs of Police has said, when it comes to mental health crises, police have become the first responders. Many interactions between law enforcement and people with mental health and other disabilities such as autism, deafness, intellectual disabilities, have ended in serious injuries and deaths. The Washington Post reports that over 26 percent of police shootings since 2015 have involved people with mental health disabilities.
It is time to relieve law enforcement of the responsibility of responding to non-criminal emergencies and to reduce the interactions between police and people with disabilities. And, when necessary, we need to provide law enforcement officers with the skills necessary to have safe, effective interactions with people with disabilities.
That is why I have reintroduced two bills as part of my Law Enforcement Education and Accountability for People with Disabilities (LEAD) Initiative. One bill, the Human-services Emergency Program (HELP) Act, will divert non-criminal emergency calls away from 9-1-1 to agencies designed to address human service needs, such as the 2-1-1 system, and mental health needs, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which will become the 9-8-8 three digit national call number in July 2022. The second bill, the Safe Interactions Act, will provide funding to train and educate new and veteran law enforcement officers about best practices to interact with and support people with disabilities. The training would be developed and implemented by people with disabilities who can speak from their lived experiences. A broad coalition of organizations has endorsed these bills, including ading national disability advocacy organizations such as the Autism Society of America, the Arc of the United States and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Support has also been secured by civil rights organizations such as the Center for American Progress and the Public Interest Law Center and national organizations representing law enforcement officers including the Fraternal Order of Police.
The injuries and deaths that have occurred to people with disabilities like John Washington, Linden Cameron and Osaze Osagie through interactions with law enforcement personnel that turned violent are tragedies. To prevent such tragedies, we need to connect people in crisis with the resources they require, reduce the demands on police and ensure they have the knowledge and skills to successfully interact with people with mental health and other disabilities. I urge my Senate colleagues to support the Safe Interactions Act and the HELP Act to make our cities and towns safer for both law enforcement personnel and people with disabilities.
Casey is the senior senator from Pennsylvania and chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.