“She was mentally ill, she was African-American, she was transgender, and all of that combined scared the police. They didn’t quite know how to handle someone like Kayla,” Maria Moore told me.
Maria was Kayla Moore’s sister. Kayla, who suffered from schizophrenia, was killed in 2013 by Berkeley police officers after they were called to perform a mental health check following a series of violent episodes.
While Kayla had Medi-Cal, (California’s version of Medicaid) Maria said that she often had to wait three months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist, or wait for hours at a free clinic where there was no guarantee she would ever reach the front of the line. Kayla and her loved ones sometimes relied on police to hospitalize Kayla just so she could get back on her medication.
Upon arrival at her home, police attempted to arrest Kayla using a warrant that had come up in their internal system. The warrant turned out to be for a man with her birth name who was 20 years Kayla’s senior. (As the Daily Cal recounted, there are conflicting reports about whether or not officers knew the warrant was for the wrong person).
When Kayla resisted arrest, a struggle ensued that ended with her death. Berkeley’s Police Review Commission later ruled that the lead officer failed to properly monitor Kayla’s vital signs while restraining her face-down for an extended period of time. None of the officers present that day had undergone crisis intervention training.
Despite the commission’s findings, in October, a judge dismissed excessive force charges that Maria’s family leveled against the officers in a wrongful death lawsuit.
This pattern—of black people with disabilities seeking support from law enforcement and ending up dead—is all too familiar. So is the relative exclusion of their stories from mainstream media and activism.
This past February, I went down to Fairfax County, VA, to attend a protest and vigil marking the first anniversary of Natasha McKenna’s death. There were a mere 20 or so people at the event I attended a year after she died.
McKenna died on February 8, 2015, days after officials in the Fairfax County Jail Tasered her four times with 50,000 volt shocks while attempting to “extract” her from her cell. Disturbing footage of the altercation shows McKenna naked, frightened, hooded, and shackled. Officers in hazmat suits swarm her small, limp figure, tasering her even after she loses consciousness. As they force her out of her cell, McKenna can be heard saying, “You promised you wouldn’t kill me.”
She was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child and ended up in jail—and then dead—after police were called as first responders while she was experiencing a mental health crisis. The Fairfax Co. Sheriff’s department cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing, and in fact lauded the “professionalism” and “restraint” that they allegedly demonstrated.
Another similar, tragic story is currently unfolding in New York City. On December 5, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced that he will seek a special grand jury investigation into the fatal New York Police Department shooting of Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old black woman.
Police were called to Danner’s Bronx apartment on October 18 over reports that she was behaving in an “irrational manner,” and she allegedly advanced on officers with a wooden baseball bat. Instead of de-escalating the situation, an officer saw Danner as enough of a threat that he needed to end her life. Danner had suffered from schizophrenia for over 30 years, and had written about her awareness of “mentally ill [people] who come up against law enforcement instead of mental health professionals, and end up dead.”
There is currently no federal mandate for law enforcement agencies to submit data about the use of force by their officers. This means there are no federal statistics about how many police killings are occurring nationally, let alone how many of these cases involve a victim with a disability. Using the available non-governmental data, the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on people with disabilities, produced a revealing, and alarming, study. It found that around half of the people known to have been killed or injured by the police in the past three years had a disability.
Just like race, disability should be viewed in an institutional context. As an article in The Atlantic noted, police far too often lack the training or knowledge to adequately handle people with disabilities. The article recounted instances of police expecting a deaf person to follow verbal commands at night, viewing an epileptic seizure as violent, erratic behavior, demanding that an autistic person make eye contact, or ordering someone having a mental health crisis to calm down. When they don’t get the response they’re demanding, officers will often escalate their use of force.
“We need to move toward a comprehensive understanding of how ableism and racism are part and parcel of the history of the United States,” Talila Lewis, co-founder of the organization Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf and professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, told me. “Ending police brutality demands that we advance racial justice, economic justice and disability justice simultaneously.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disabled individual as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Around one in five Americans are disabled, but the prevalence of disability is higher in populations that are further marginalized by other facets of their identities, such as race, gender, and class. People with disabilities are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, and a 2011 study found that black Americans are more likely to have a disability than white Americans, with black Americans aged 50–69 being around twice as likely to have a disability as their white counterparts.
In a great many of the law enforcement-related deaths that have been in the national spotlight in recent years, the victim was disabled in some way or another. Michael Brown had ADHD. Tamir Rice had learning disabilities. Sandra Bland struggled with depression and PTSD. It’s true that it’s harder to definitively link, say, Rice’s disability with his killing the way it is with someone like Deborah Danner. Yet it’s striking that this aspect of so many of these victims’ lives has gone relatively under-covered. Just as race cannot be erased from the identities of black police brutality victims, neither should disability.
At the same time, many black victims whose disabilities played an unquestionable role in their deaths are largely excluded from media coverage and public outrage—particularly women and LGBTQ people. This includes Tanisha Anderson, Kayla Moore, Michelle Cusseaux, Stephon Edward Watts, Mya Hall, Darnell Wicker, and too many more to name.
Police have increasingly become first responders for those with disabilities, with an estimated 15% of calls to police involving a disability-related emergency.
“It starts at the fundamental area of access to services,” Rebecca Cokely, executive director of the National Council on Disability, told me. “We continue to see social services being cut left and right.”
While mental and medical health professionals attend school for years to learn how to support their patients, police officers might attend a few-hour long training on disability, or they might not be trained at all.
Fran Garrett, whose daughter Michelle Cusseaux was killed by Phoenix police in 2014, knows the dangers of having police be first responders in moments of crisis. Cusseaux suffered from schizophrenia, and a health care provider called police to her residence to transport Cusseaux to a facility for treatment. When Cusseaux refused to open the door for officers, Sergeant Percy Dupra had her door removed. He claimed to have seen Cusseaux holding a hammer, and that she had moved towards him with it. He shot her at point-blank range in the heart.
Dupra later said he shot Cusseaux because he perceived “anger in her face.” Garrett sees it differently. “I’m sure whatever that man saw on her face was fear. Fear of all those policemen in her house surrounding her with guns drawn. I think about the last few minutes of my daughter’s life, and it was just fear.” While Dupra was found to have violated department policy, he continues to serve on the Phoenix police force.
Ultimately, advocates agree that the root of the problem lies in the structure of policing itself. “Again and again we see police demanding compliance from people who are not in a position to comply,” explained David Perry, a co-author of the aforementioned Ruderman Family Foundation report. “This is not coming out of a lack of specialized training, but out of a base level of policing that is about control.”
The advocates I spoke to support a wide range of solutions, including divesting funds from police forces and investing in community mental health services; funding 24/7 crisis hotlines that aren’t linked to the police; and creating a national mandate to collect data on police misconduct that is disaggregated by disability and other identity markers. While the ultimate goal is to reduce community interactions with law enforcement, in the meantime, police trainings should be created and led by people of color with disabilities.
“There is no liberation for black people if there is no liberation for black disabled people,” said Lewis. “All of our liberation is inextricably linked to the liberation of the next person.”
Reckoning with the full humanity of those lost to police brutality means uplifting all aspects of their identities. Advancing effective political strategies to combat state violence depends upon grappling with its root causes. This includes disability. It’s the least we can do. For Natasha, Deborah, Michelle, Kayla, Sandra, Stephon, Tanisha, and so many more whose names we know, will come to know, and will never know.