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Activists Say Police Killing of Ryan Gainer Shows Need for Community Safety

Black, autistic 15-year-old Ryan Gainer was fatally shot by San Bernardino police during a mental health crisis.

Rebecca Gainer, sister of slain Ryan Gainer, comforts her mother Sharon Hayward during a press conference announcing a lawsuit against the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department on March 21, 2024, in Apple Valley, California.

The fatal police shooting of a Black, autistic teen in San Bernardino, California, has sparked renewed calls for alternative crisis intervention approaches for those with mental illness and disability. On March 9, 15-year-old Ryan Gainer returned home from a run and became increasingly frustrated with his parents after they demanded he complete his household chores before playing video games. A family member reportedly called police after Gainer began breaking glass and hitting his sister, but the responding deputies fatally shot Gainer for allegedly running toward authorities while holding a garden tool.

After releasing body camera footage, San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus defended the deputies’ use of lethal force, at one point citing Gainer’s “large stature.” The comparison drew immediate criticism from civil rights advocates.

“One of the reasons for increased rates of use of force against Black youths is the consistent and unexamined portrayal of children in our community as adults,” said James Burch, deputy director of the Anti Police-Terror Project. “Ryan Gainer was a child. He should be with us today.”

Instances like this are a continued trend for disabled people of color. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department was sued last year after deputies fatally shot 44-year-old Tony Garza in the midst of a mental health crisis. Garza’s family has since filed a $20 million lawsuit against the county. Research shows that up to 50% of those killed by law enforcement in the U.S. are disabled, and more than half of disabled Black Americans are arrested by the time they turn 28. People with disabilities are also overrepresented in prisons and jails — according to survey data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 38% of incarcerated people in state and federal prisons reported at least one disability in 2016.

Systemic racism compounded by poverty, food insecurity, underfunded schools, lack of green space, and poor air quality can also contribute to an increased risk in chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes, further impacting mental health in communities of color. These communities also lack accessible and unbiased medical care; a study published in Exceptional Children found that Black and Latinx youths were less likely to be identified with autism and learning disabilities than their white peers, thus divesting critical services away from families that need them — especially in response to crises.

Law enforcement’s focus on compliance can pose deadly consequences to disabled people experiencing crises. Those who struggle to communicate or respond to law enforcement’s requests as a result of their disability may inevitably face violence when encountering police.

“We see all too often unarmed Black people and children in particular [are] killed by police, and you layer on top of the racism, the implicit bias, the disability, and the lack of knowledge around disabilities is a lethal formula for our kids,” said Areva Martin, a civil rights attorney and founder of the Special Needs Network.

Most police departments in the U.S. still do not require de-escalation training for their officers. A 2016 report by the Police Executive Research Forum stated that police academies spend a median of 58 hours on firearm training and less than eight hours on de-escalation or crisis intervention training. Criminal justice advocates say the rise of Cop Cities combined with increased police funding and surveillance technology also pose a risk in increased police violence.

Many activists also say no amount of training will stop police from killing BIPOC disabled communities.

“This is a systemic thing, and it happens every day in this country — and most of the stories we don’t hear about,” said Kehsi Iman Wilson, COO and co-founder of disability justice organization New Disabled South. “We don’t hear about disabled Black men [and] boys who are being killed in carceral systems and jails, prisons, juvenile detention, facilities, etc. on a daily basis.”

Advocates like Wilson argue that, to dismantle the prison industrial complex and the government’s overuse of policing, surveillance, and imprisonment, communities must invest in mental health response teams and mutual aid.

“Whether it be through grassroots efforts or city-funded programs, we need as many alternatives as possible, so we can make sure that, when one of our community members [are] in crisis, there’s a great chance that law enforcement doesn’t show up,” Burch said.

In support of these alternative programs, many advocates point to how there is little evidence that police actually stop or reduce crime. A report from the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice found that crime clearance rates are at an all-time low, with California law enforcement agencies reportedly solving 13.2% of cases in 2022, compared to 22.3% in 1990. Conversely, law enforcement budgets in the state have soared by 52% in the past three decades.

“We have the data that clearly demonstrates that the police do not keep us safe, that police are an ineffective form of public safety,” Burch said. “We just need to be able to communicate that effectively across the fear-based rhetoric that’s being fed to our [communities].”

Some cities have already taken steps to implement these community-based public safety programs. In Oakland, the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) pilot program launched in April 2022, which consists of a civilian team of first responders who show up to non-violent and non-emergency 911 calls. Over the course of 18 months, the program made 15,000 total contacts, with 10,145 consisting of wellness checks. The program now has an established phone number to divert calls away from 911.

In Richmond, California, the Community Crisis Response program (CCRP) aims to respond to non-violent mental health crises in the city without police, fire, or other Emergency Management Services personnel. This differs from the MACRO program, which requires EMTs in addition to community intervention specialists. The 18-month pilot was set to begin last August of 2023. The city allocated $1 million from the American Rescue Plan, a federal COVID-19 relief reserve, to fund the program.

The barrier to these programs is ensuring that communities are informed and know that these resources are available. Activists say solidarity is needed to ensure the momentum continues.

“Silence is a part of the strategy,” Wilson said. “The news cycle will move on from this, but how are we in the communities keeping these conversations going? A lot of that goes back to demanding change from lawmakers and policymakers. It also requires cross movement solidarity, and disability solidarity. Taking up space as disabled people in those conversations and highlighting, again, how all of these actions are ultimately the key to our collective liberation.”

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