Around 40 Denton community members and activists joined together Thursday to discuss police relations and mistreatment with the disabled community in a meeting hosted by the Disability Inclusion Society.
The “Crips & Cops” forum covered issues within policing and ways for disabled people with both visible and invisible disabilities to communicate with law enforcement. DIS President Val Vera said the event’s name reflects an effort to reclaim the term “crip” within the disabled community.
Five panelists participated in an open Q&A format for the session, including DIS member and activist Mateo Granados, TWU disability professor Paul Bones, ADA coordinator Abigail Clement, mental health advocate Bahari Lewis-McBride and Freyja Odinsdottir, a former Denton detention officer and current Sheriff candidate.
Vera began the meeting with a list of ten disabled victims of police violence as well as their disabilities to draw attention toward how disabled people victimized by “discrimination, brutality and murder.”
The hosts and panelists asserted throughout the meeting that disabled people are met with greater levels of violence by police than other groups. Studies of police violence may back up that claim, such as a 2016 study by disability advocates at the Ruderman Family Foundation that found that one-third to half of all people killed by law enforcement were disabled in some way.
“I think the largest piece that contributes to violence against disabled people is a lack of understanding of what disability looks like and what disability presents as,” Odinsdottir said. “You’re going to get a different response from law enforcement officers if […] you have a visible disability. That response is not always going to be good. Often it is antagonistic because they don’t understand.”
Bones, who studies the relationship of disability and crime, said society as a whole can stigmatize disability and mental illness, contributing to mistreatment from police and civilians.
“The way we view, in particular, mental illness or neurodiversity, I think that is stigmatized,” Bones said. “Not just in movies, but everywhere [there is] this idea of someone being mad or out of control […] That plays a lot into police interactions, as well as the way civilians view police interactions. It’s very easy to craft a narrative of police danger with ‘Oh, well this was a crazy person.’”
Bones also cited national victimization studies from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that disabled people fall victim to around 2.5 times the amount of violent offenses than persons without disabilities. The most recent surveys also found that disabled people face over three times the amount of “serious violent crimes” including rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault.
Lewis-McBride partially attributed this victimization to the frailty of some disabled people who may not be able to defend themselves from abuse.
“Police brutality is an abuse,” Lewis-McBride said. “They see we, unfortunately, are possibly easy targets for this system and culture which allows for toxic environments of abuse.”
Panelists gave examples of hardships disabled people can experience within the criminal justice system from arrest to prisons, like losing access to mental health drugs or paying high bail prices. Granados, a co-founder of a Denton bail fund, said the current punitive system should become more rehabilitative
Granados also said he supports abolishing the current police and prison system, a sentiment echoed by other members of the panel, but acknowledged doing so would take more “buy-in” from the public.
“The way we see the carceral system used now […] is a way to punish people of color, people who aren’t wealthy and keep them from having access to healthcare, jobs and simple things in life that everyone should have access to,” Granados said.
The replacement for gaps in policing could be made up of welfare programs that “treat crime at the source” instead of using punishment to deter crime, Clement said. Clement, a former UNT rehabilitative studies student, said giving people access to needs like safe housing and free or more affordable healthcare would keep them safer.
Additionally, Clement highlighted areas she felt deserved less police attention like sex work and homelessness.
“A major step in defunding the police is realizing that crime stems from community trauma,” Clement said.
Reform programs could also target police behavior, Bones said, by training officers on how to respond to invisible and visible disabilities. He recommended officers partake in healthy dialogue with disabled people to “humanize” them and their struggles.
Some reforms on mental health treatment will come to the Denton Police Department soon. Upon the recommendation of a citizen board examining police use-of-force, DPD will hire mental health professionals to respond to similar crises panelists said officers could misinterpret.
“Ideally, if we could create a program that was managed by disabled people and that involved side-by-side work and contact between police and disabled people, in my opinion, that would be the best way,” Bones said. ”I think something that would be very beneficial is creating more contact between people and the police themselves.”
Courtesy Disability Inclusion Society Session