‘We Have to Have Disability as Part of Our Discussion’ – CounterSpin interview with David Perry on disability and police violence

Janine Jackson interviewed David Perry about disability and police violence for the July 29, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

David Perry

David Perry: “The media will talk about someone with mental illness, but it’s often in a way that blames the mental illness for the eventual force used against them.”

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Janine Jackson:  When behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey asked the Florida police officer why he had shot him, given that he was lying on his back with his hands in the air, the officer’s answer was, “I don’t know.” Later this was amended for what was apparently deemed an acceptable alternative: He’d meant to shoot Arnoldo Soto, the 23-year-old man with autism holding the toy truck, whom Kinsey was trying to help.

The spotlight that Black Lives Matter and other activists have forced onto police brutality and overpolicing of African-Americans can’t help but shed light on other aspects of the problem as well, including the frequency with which those killed by police are people with disabilities.

Our next guest’s work, however, suggests that being at risk is not, so far, enough to get them an appropriate role in media’s coverage of the story. David Perry is a disability rights journalist and associate professor of history at Dominican University. He’s co-author, with Lawrence Carter- Long, of a new white paper for the Ruderman Family Foundation on media coverage of law enforcement use of force and disability. He joins us now by phone from Illinois. Welcome to CounterSpin, David Perry.

David Perry: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: Corporate media do a poor job of integrating people with disabilities into coverage generally. We could talk, I suspect, all day about the demeaning tropes and approaches. “I Spent a Day in a Wheelchair” comes to my mind. But we’d mostly be talking about absence, right? And when you looked at coverage of police use of force, that absence seems to have been, if you will, your first finding.

DP: Yeah, when you start to look at who is getting killed by police, or against who the police are using what seems to be extreme use of force, whether it’s lethal or not, you find that, as I think we know and have a vigorous debate about what it means, it is very heavily people of color. But you also find that it’s very heavily people who have disabilities, and that there is an overwhelming intersection in the data, such data as we have, between those categories of identity—disability, people of color, poor people. And when you start to have poor people of color with disabilities, the risk factors seem very high.

I don’t think that story has particularly been told, certainly not in the media, but even not so much, until very recently, in the disability rights movement, within the police and criminal justice reform movements, that that component that has disability, it’s certainly known to people of color with disabilities, and certainly activists in that space, but it hasn’t really entered mainstream consciousness.

JJ: And, of course, we’re clear that no one who’s trying to call attention to problems with law enforcement interactions with people with disabilities is trying to pull it away from communities of color; exactly what you’re saying is that’s an artificial division. And yet at the same time, there are particular aspects that have to do with interactions between law enforcement and people with disabilities that need their own light shone on them.

DP: That’s right. Disability is one of many factors, but there are particular things that happen. When you start to look at the kinds of cases that get widespread media attention, that spark protests, there’s often something in the interaction between the police officer and the civilian that people fixate on, something that doesn’t feel right to them. It often has to do with disability. I think it’s really as high as about 80 or 90 percent, when you start to list off the names of the people we think about—Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, just to kind of pick a top four. All of those are people of color, but they were also all people of color with disabilities.

And you start to see ways in which disability—perhaps the person doesn’t respond in exactly the way the officer was expecting, and then, due to other factors, including racial bias, the officer may respond to that unexpected behavior with more force than they might had it been an upper-middle-class white person who was behaving in that unpredictable way.

So we have to have disability as part of our discussion here. But certainly, as you say, it’s an intersecting discussion; it’s a discussion that really starts with race and maybe it ends with race—racial discrimination, both individual discrimination but also structural, it’s one of the biggest problems in America, today and for a long time. But I think on the way through, we have to look at these other points of intersection, and, again, disability is just overwhelmingly there in the data.

JJ: When media do engage issues of disability in this coverage, which we’re saying they don’t do terribly often, but when they do, what does it tend to look like?

DP: That’s the other problem. We get a certain number of examples in which the media will talk about someone with mental illness, but it’s often in a way that blames the mental illness for the eventual force used against them. So someone “suffering from” mental illness, when it turns out that they were doing just fine with their mental health condition; they’re suffering from a taser or pepper spray or bullets or being choked; that’s really where the suffering came from, was the use of force against them.

The idea that people with disabilities, such as autism or mental disabilities, are particularly dangerous and prone to violence—you know, there was just this big, very high-profile “Spotlight,” Boston Globe “Spotlight,” the famous investigative team that now has been celebrated in the movies, on mental illness and violence. And, really, the first thing it implied was that people with mental illness are violent, when in fact people with mental illness and other disabilities are vastly, by an order of magnitude, more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.

So even when they talk about disability they tend to segment it into different corners; they tend to blame the disability for someone behaving in an unpredictable way, and then excuse the officer for their use of force. That’s what happens in police reports, too, and from people who talk to the media from police unions and from communications officials within departments: that they say, well, it’s a tragedy, but they’re acting in this unpredictable way, so the officer behaved reasonably. So that disability becomes the cause of the use of force, not the officer’s decision to use force.

JJ: And, of course, for many people, that leads to a conversation about, well, shouldn’t we train police officers better, to recognize how to work with people with disabilities? But, again, that still seems to accept the fact that we have determined that law enforcement are going to be our first responders on these issues.

DP: Yeah. I mean, I’m all for training. I think that giving officers 40-hour-a-week, or four four-hour classes, depending on what we’re talking about, so that they know a little bit more about developmental disabilities, they know a little bit more about various mental health conditions, these things can be very useful. I’ve actually sat through hours of what’s called crisis intervention team training in a bunch of different states, and I think there’s plenty of good stuff there.

I guess I’d just like to see two things. One, I don’t think that training officers to be more patient, to give time and space to, not respond to, someone whose behavior is unpredictable as a threat, unless there’s some other reason it’s a threat — if they have a loaded firearm, well, then it’s not unreasonable for an officer to say, this is a threatening situation. But often, as we saw with Arnoldo Rios Soto, he was just sitting on the ground cross-legged holding a truck. This is not threatening behavior; it’s just not compliant behavior. These are things that officers who take these trainings learn how to respond to with more patience and more care.

Frankly, I think that should be day one of police academy, not this special enrichment training down the road. So that’s one thing, to build the best practices that policing, not that journalists like me, but that police officers are putting into the field in these special trainings, make them a fundamental part of all police training. So that’s one thing.

But the second thing, as you say, is to find ways to get police out of responding to nonthreatening situations that involve disability. And, just for example, in Chicago where I live, where we’ve had case after case of people in mental health crisis who end up being killed or otherwise abused by police, we’ve closed community mental health centers in these communities, in these very neighborhoods where the incidents come. I think there’s a strong correlation there, and we have to do much better at providing integrated community living, we have to try to prevent crises from happening in the first place, rather than training police officers to respond to them better.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, in terms of best practices for the media, what did the good coverage do differently that you found, and what would like to see more of?

DP: The best thing you can do is really try to put any incident in broader context, to think about how people with disabilities like to talk about themselves. When you do have someone using stigmatizing language about disability—“John was suffering from mental illness,” for example—to treat that the same way you would use stigmatizing language about race or gender or sexual identity. If you’re interviewing someone and someone uses a stigmatizing language about race, you might or might not quote it, but you wouldn’t just leave it sitting in the paragraph by itself—you would contextualize it, you would try to think very hard about how to frame it so that, as journalists, we’re doing a better job to inform our readers about the context, and inform our readers about what disability is and how it works in our society, rather than just passing along misconceptions.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with David Perry. You can find the white paper at RudermanFoundation.org, and more of Perry’s work on ThisMess.net. Thank you very much, David Perry, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DP: Thank you so much for having me.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.