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More Trainings Are Not the Answer to Police Violence Against Disabled People

Training police to deal with disability-related crises cannot replace the dire need for social services.

Chicago police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony in the Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier on June 15, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois. Training police to deal with disability-related crises cannot replace the dire need for social services.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) recently announced it would be hiring an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance officer. The ADA compliance officer will be brought on to monitor CPD’s accordance with federally mandated ADA regulations, implement new policies for CPD and provide disability-related training. While the compliance officer may not have “police power,” they would be closely working with law enforcement officers.

The new position is part of a federal consent decree filed by the attorney general’s office and the city of Chicago in September 2018. The drafting of the consent decree, which contains requirements and policy recommendations for police reform, originated from a 2017 investigation into CPD by the Department of Justice. This investigation found excessive use of force against Chicago residents, specifically Black and Latinx people.

While the local disability rights community has largely cheered on CPD’s new position and celebrated it as a victory, others rightfully question whether these new changes will actually benefit community members of color, low-income communities, homeless people, immigrant communities and other groups who are continuously affected by police brutality. Here, we once again find limitations in applying the typical disability rights framework to address issues of police brutality against disabled people in Chicago.

The Ableist History of Policing

Hiring a new officer is an expansion of the police force, and the police force is grounded in racism — and in ableism. Historically, in the U.S., people who were labeled as deviant, unproductive, dangerous, unworthy and unfit were killed by the police force or arrested and incarcerated in large, segregated institutions. These institutions included asylums, prisons, jails, internment camps, poorhouses and many other facilities. People with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, poor or homeless people, immigrants, Black, Brown and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), orphaned children, and other marginalized people were the ones to be subject to such surveillance and confinement.

In Chicago, policing has been used as a tool to enforce racist and ableist policies and regulations; to inflict segregation and displacement of people of color, as well as to exclude disabled and poor people from society. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public by Susan Schweik refers to how disabled people were fined and incarcerated for being present in public spaces, like streets, under the Chicago City Code of 1881.

While the passage of the ADA in 1990 enabled many disabled people’s access to education, transportation, employment and various other services, it did not eliminate state violence against disabled people who were multiply marginalized. Today, nearly 50 percent of the individuals who are assaulted or killed by law enforcement are disabled, while constituting only 12.7 percent of the population overall. Moreover, Black and Brown people are grossly overrepresented victims of police violence, and the risk is escalated when the person is also disabled. By the age of 28, 55 percent of Black men with disabilities are arrested by law enforcement, compared to their white counterparts’ 40 percent. When it comes to policing in Chicago, such disparity has been grounded in how specific policies are implemented and targeted toward marginalized communities.

More Money for Cops, But Hardly Any for Badly Needed Social Services

Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the construction of a $95 million police academy in Chicago’s West Side — a project originally proposed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. CPD’s budget is expected to grow to over $1.7 billion (about 30 percent of the entire expenditure) this year, on top of the $115 million needed to meet the requirements of the federal consent decree and several other changes in the department. The total budget for Public Safety in 2020 is $2.7 billion, covering the costs from the Police Board (half a million dollars), Office of Public Safety Administration ($34 million) and Civilian Office of Police Accountability ($13.8 million) — all expanded since 2019. At the same time, the city has remained reluctant to invest in historically disadvantaged communities, and provide more opportunities for Black and Brown communities on the South and West sides, who have been affected by the violent policing for many years. These communities also have a higher prevalence of disabilities, health disparities and poverty rates than any other parts of the city.

There are around 293,591 people with disabilities (out of 2,693,496 — 10.9 percent of the total population) residing in Chicago. Among the disability population, 27.7 percent are white, 46.1 percent are Black, 20.9 percent are Latinx and 9.4 percent are classified as “other” (Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Native American, or two or more races). In Illinois, as of 2012, Black (13.8 percent) and Native American (11.4 percent) people showed the greatest disability prevalence compared to white people (8.2 percent). Poverty, health disparity, frequent exposure to violence, and other environmental factors created by discriminatory policies and a lack of access to necessary resources contribute to this debilitating effect on communities of color. At the same time, disabled BIPOC experience harder times accessing disability-related resources for systemic barriers based on geography, class, language and citizenship status.

Community organizers, advocates and allies have long requested funding for equitable community investment: mental health clinics, essential school resources, such as special education instructors and counselors, affordable and accessible housing, and other basic needs — all of which would clearly serve disabled people. But those requests continue to be either largely ignored or simply receive a token gesture. For many years, mental health advocates and activist groups, such as Mental Health Movement and Collaborative for Community Wellness, have protested against the extreme budget cuts on community mental health services and called for the re-opening of the 6 out of 12 mental health clinics that were closed under the Emanuel administration. During her election campaign in 2018, Mayor Lightfoot promised a revival of the closed clinics, but such a pledge is unlikely to be realized due to budget constraints. While the consent decree has enlarged CPD’s budget, it has not provided the critical community investment and expansion of the social safety net that are proven to be more effective in reducing crime and bringing about safer and healthier communities as a whole.

The Black Hole: Accountability in the Chicago Police Department

The lack of accountability is another issue for CPD. Rarely, as numerous critics have pointed out, are perpetrating officers held to account. The Department of Justice reported that over 30,000 complaints of police misconduct were filed with the City of Chicago between 2011 and 2016, but fewer than 2 percent were sustained, resulting in no discipline in 98 percent of these complaints. Even when such a complaint is received, the actual commitment to accountability is improbable.

In 2017, Sergeant Khalil Muhammad shot and injured Ricardo Hayes, a Black and Autistic teenager. In December 2019, the Chicago Police Board found Muhammad guilty of violating four police department rules and suspended him for six months. An attorney for the victim’s caregiver condemned the Board’s decision, saying, “I can’t believe he’s still a police officer.” Despite the implementation of the CPD’s consent decree, it remains unclear whether it will actually work to rein in the criminalization of Black and Brown disabled people and hold officers to account by preventing those who exert violence from re-accessing police power.

Additionally, whether more training will make the system less ableist or harmful is questionable. As recommended in the consent decree, the CPD’s strategic plan for 2019-2022 states that the department would increase procedural justice and implicit bias training and enhance Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.

The Problems With Training and Limited Reforms

According to the Anti-Defamation League Midwest, which provides training for law enforcement officers, implicit bias training intends to reduce the influence of bias interactions and decision-making by law enforcement. Procedural justice training, on the other hand, aims to improve the police force’s relationship with communities and police legitimacy, which means people have trust and confidence in the police, accept police authority and believe officers are fair.

CIT training is a type of police training to prepare officers for encounters with people who may be suffering from mental illnesses. The training has been deprecated by advocates for a long time, as it has been often used as a strategy to replace the public need for mental health clinics and other community-based resources, and it is rarely conducted properly. It also further stigmatizes the mental health and neurodivergent community as calling police becomes a default response to disability-related crises.

Moreover, not only do the police officers who have harmed civilians still occupy their job positions, they are also allowed to facilitate implicit bias training on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and more. It was reported that more than 60 percent of the CPD officers who have provided procedural justice training since early 2017 have been accused of violating Black civilians’ rights, with more than half having been accused two times or more of mistreatment of Black civilians.

Furthermore, the problem with positing limited disability rights-oriented reforms as a solution to police violence is that many have merely focused on providing reasonable accommodation or making little alterations within the system while keeping its basic form intact, without diminishing or questioning its influence. This kind of disability rights framework lacks intersectional considerations with regards to how police violence impacts marginalized communities disproportionately.

Police violence against disabled people is deeply rooted in systemic issues of inequity, injustice and oppression in the U.S. It’s about the whole history of colonialism, racism, classism, militarism, capitalism and ableism further harming marginalized communities systemically. Without thinking critically about the complex realities and radically envisioning the liberation of all, this framework only serves to solidify the presence of violent systems and grants them more institutional power and control.

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