Black Disabled Lives Matter and How Social Workers Need to Address Structural Ableism

Conversations about police violence are happening all over the world from the killing of Mr. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Black and so many other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC). America is at an inflection point where we are being forced to examine our ugly stain of racism which permeates through every American system and infrastructure.

Difficult conversations on structural racism, police brutality, and inequality are finally be held where its a shared reality. And I want to add a disability thread to that conversation, but first…

Several years prior to 2020, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw added a different thread to the conversation about BIPoC deaths at the hands of police by talking about gender and all of the women who have died due to police violence, but many of those women names are not known. We got to know the #sayhername movement where people began to think intersectionally about race and gender even if the mainstream news media didn’t report much about the deaths of BIPoC women killed by police.

But only recently have we learned that 30-50% of the BIPoC people who have died at the hands of police in this country over a three year period had something else in common, they had a disability. This fact was unearthed by the Ruderman Family Foundation in a white paper that examined media coverage of such cases (PDF file here). It was necessary to study this phenomenon this way as there is no legal requirement for police to track disability data related to arrests or deaths. Did you know that Sandra Bland had a disability? Freddie Gray? Elijah McClain? And so many more…

In studying media reporting, the Foundation noted that disability was either not mentioned, listed as a non-contextualized attribute, used to evoke sympathy for the victim or to blame the victim. In rare cases, it allowed for discussion of the intersecting forces leading to lethal use of force situations. The report concludes states, “When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.”

Although disabled people make up 1/3 of all households in the United States, which is approximately 61 million people or about 25% of the U.S. population, it still feels as though we are so often *unseen* and *unremembered* in social work circles or any circles as if our identity is an afterthought.

Social workers need to begin to see with a disability lens, to remember disability as an identity. In working with disabled people, social workers need to think about the ways they can prevent the deaths of disabled people at the hands of police – and especially BIPoC disabled people. Disability justice advocate Haben Girma has been out front on this with respect to individual interactions with the police, but let’s think about this more structurally.

Here are a few questions that can guide your work – notice that they move beyond the usual band-aid “train the police to work with disabled folks” response that we usually get and move towards the goal of structural reform! Just as we need to think about structural racism in confronting police violence, so too do we need to think about structural ableism in police work.

  • How can we raise disability culture awareness *throughout* our local police precincts?
  • Are there ways we can rid those precincts of structural ableism such as through the identification and elimination of ableist thinking, tendencies and practices?
  • Are there strategic partnerships we can facilitate that can bridge disability justice advocates with law enforcement and social service partners toward this effort?
  • Are there alternative conflict and dispute resolution systems that we can fund in order to avoid police involvement in “hot situations?”

Are you willing to step up for disability justice in your social work world? 

New Mobile Justice App: Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself

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It is no secret that police brutality exists and is often targeted towards minority groups particularly African American and Latino citizens. Almost daily throughout the country, there are news reports depicting the inhumane nature of police interactions with people of color.  Also on social media, news feeds and twitter pages are filled with accounts about vicious attacks made by police on marginalized groups, and these attacks many times result in unnecessary death or trauma.

For people of color, police engagement instills a deep sense of fear and resentment towards those who are tasked with protecting and serving our communities. Historically, police departments have been used as legal enforcers for racial oppression. Most Caucasians see police officers simply working to maintain their safety while most people of color feel terrorized by them. Almost always, police are given a slap on the wrist for police brutality and excessive uses of force. Very rarely are they charged with their crimes, even when their actions result in unjustified homicide.

As I write, I remember two unwarranted deaths that had occurred while I lived in Pittsburgh.  Both victims were African American and unarmed- one was a teenager and the other was a mentally ill adult.  The teenager was shot and killed for walking home in his community, called the Hill District.  The other was tased to death in front of a gas station.

I also think about LaQuan McDonald, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the countless number of victims that die yearly because of police brutality.  Let us give them a moment of silence to honor their memory and direct compassion towards their families.  During 2015 alone, police killed more than 100 unarmed African Americans, which means at least two unarmed African Americans are killed each week by police in the United States.

However, now there is hope to make an inhumane and unjust police system answer for brutality against minority groups. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri recently created a free mobile justice app that can be downloaded to any smart phone in order to hold the police system of Missouri accountable for its numerous attacks against marginalized groups.  Since the killing of Michael Brown, police brutality has exponentially grown in Missouri, which inspired the creation of this app to halt its prevalence.

This app, known as ACLU of Missouri Mobile Justice App 2, is free to anyone and offers many features that empower the community to act against police brutality.  The four main features of this app include:  1) Recording, 2) Witnessing, 3) Reporting, and 4) Educating about rights.  It allows app holders to record instances of brutal police encounters that are instantly emailed to ACLU of Missouri.  It also alerts other app users in the area of police brutality so that they can bear witness and offer testimony against police officers.

Additionally, it allows victims and witnesses of police brutality to accurately report inhumane and unlawful encounters with the police.  Lastly, this app educates its users about their rights as citizens, which includes the right to videotape police brutality despite what is said by police officers.  Thus, this app provides a mechanism to stop police brutality through visibility and accountability.

ACLU of Missouri cautions the usage of this app since police officers are armed and dangerous.  They suggest that users announce to police that they are reaching for their phone, while also reminding officers that recording is a civil liberty.  Ultimately if your life is in danger, app creators suggest that you put down the phone.  However, once the recording is initiated, it automatically alerts others and is sent to ACLU of Missouri’s email.

This app is a first and necessary step in ending police brutality against minority groups in the United States.  Other states can now model the creation their own mobile justice app in order to hold police accountable throughout the country.  More importantly, this app allows citizens across the United States to become educated about the cruel nature of police interactions in order to activate change within their communities.

This app empowers us citizens to prevent the unnecessary killing of unarmed minority citizens.  #BlackLivesMatter just as much as white lives.  Hispanic lives matter, Muslim lives, Asian lives, and Native American Lives too, but we cannot have justice until people of color lives matter just as much as white lives. Our police can no longer serve to protect solely its white members while targeting and killing minority groups.

Filming police brutality? Of course there’s an app for that

Posted by NowThis on Friday, May 1, 2015

 

Helping Law Enforcement the Social Work Way

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One story that is trending on news and social media is that of a law enforcement officer who drew his gun on unarmed teenagers.  The same officer was videotaped ordering teenagers to lie on the ground and was viewed physically holding a teenage girl on the ground.  The teenagers were reportedly at a neighborhood pool when an incident occurred and law enforcement was called.

It should be noted that not all of the officers approached the incident in the same manner.  Another officer was videotaped calmly but assertively asking several youngsters about the incident.  His questioning was interrupted by the officer, who eventually drew his weapon.

Comments and opinions on the blogosphere regarding this current event are emotionally charged.  They clearly show biases that originate from the writers’ life experiences and beliefs.  These opinions are often framed in combative ‘them versus us’ tones.  If one expresses concern for the law enforcement officer, another opinion will refute its validity and claim concern for the alleged victims.  If one expresses concern for the victims, another writer will invalidate the comment and express full support for all actions, good, bad, or indifferent by the law enforcement officer.

Unfortunately, these comments do not solve the problem and do not address the needs of the victims or law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement officers and first responders have been found to have a higher incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than the general population. In the article “What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” author Pamela Kulbarsh, R.N. wrote that the prevalence of PTSD ranges from 4-14% among law enforcement officers.  Many articles state that an exact number is difficult to obtain due to underreporting.

Law enforcement officers are repeatedly exposed to threats of death and actual death.  They are expected to make split second decisions that could result in major injuries or loss of life.  Officers are sent to situations with cursory information and expected to provide appropriate solutions.  Gary G. Felt, MA, MHC expounds on this concern in the article “The Relationship of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to Law Enforcement: The Importance of Education.”

Social workers and mental health workers understand that individuals who experience PTSD symptoms may believe they are under constant threat particularly in situations that are similar to other trauma related experiences.  They may display demonstrate irritability, anger and aggression with little to no provocation.

These events provide opportunity for social work professionals to provide solutions using their knowledge and expertise of social work practice.  Professional social workers, who are entrepreneurial minded, should also view these incidents as opportunities for career growth and advancement as well.

Social workers can provide law enforcement officers with solutions and training to avert the appearance of being overly aggressive, unyielding and unreasonable.  Social workers can also provide strategies that will enable law enforcement professionals to do their jobs while providing them with substantive protection.

Social workers use social work methods and strategies.  Solution enabling strategies include:

Developing appropriate responses to problems based on client needs.

Creatively combining knowledge, values and skills to gain understanding and build relationships.

Respecting and facilitating healthy interactions among individuals, groups and environments.

Assessing, planning, implementing, and evaluating work at every level.

A partnership between social work and law enforcement will create and promote an environment of support and safety for law enforcement officers and the community at large.

Police Abuse: A Serious Threat to the Rule of Law

Far too often, police officers in many European countries resort to excessive use of force against protesters, mistreat persons in detention, target minorities and otherwise engage in misconduct. This undermines public trust in the state, social cohesion, and effective law enforcement, which rests on cooperation between police and local communities.

It is difficult to ascertain whether police misconduct has become more common in some countries or whether the problem has become more visible and recognised. Clearly, demonstrations have become more commonplace in Europe, generating new challenges for law enforcement. Moreover, European societies have become more diverse and police forces have sometimes been slow to adapt. In other cases, political elites share much of the blame, as they have given the green light for bad policing through direct orders or rhetoric stigmatising certain groups.

A multifaceted phenomenon

In recent months, Europe has witnessed several glaring instances in which policing of demonstrations has gone beyond what is legally and ethically acceptable. In Ukraine, excessive use of force by police against peaceful demonstrators in late November 2013 fueled a massive growth in protests, which have since resulted in a growing number of deaths among both protestors and police.

After interviewing numerous victims and examining many medical records, I detected a clear pattern of targeting the head and face, which is completely unnecessary and disproportionate. In the context of the 2013 Gezi events in Turkey, I received numerous and particularly serious allegations of excessive use of force by the police, including excessive and improper use of tear gas and the use of gas canisters as projectiles. In both Ukraine and Turkey, police repeatedly targeted both journalists and medical personnel, who could be clearly identified by their clothing.

The excessive use of force during demonstrations and/or apprehensions is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Other forms of police misconduct occur out of the sight of the general public.

The treatment of persons while in police detention is a case in point. Ill-treatment, sometimes lethal, occurs in several European states, as documented by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). This treatment mostly takes the form of slaps, punches and kicks as well as blows with hard objects (such as baseball bats) to various parts of the body. The CPT has noted that the allegations concerning police violence tends to relate mostly to ill-treatment inflicted at the time of questioning with a view to obtaining a confession or extracting information.

I have been particularly concerned by the practice of police custody in Spain, where the incommunicado detention by the Guardia Civil (the national police) is a long-standing problematic practice, as noted in my 2013 report on Spain, which has led to serious human rights violations found by the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee against Torture.

Another serious form of police misconduct is violence targeting minorities, in particular Roma, and migrants. In Greece, for instance, regular threats and racially motivated ill-treatment of migrants and Roma by members of the police and coast guard have been reported. Institutionalised racism also plays a major role in ethnic profiling resulting in abusive stops and searches targeting minorities and migrants. In a recent report on France, the Open Society Justice Initiative highlighted the very negative impact of this practice on “entire sectors of the population [who] are left feeling that no matter what they do, they will always be second-class citizens”.

There is a need to eradicate impunity

It is a fundamental duty of European states to combat impunity for human rights violations committed by law enforcement officials so that victims receive justice, future misconduct by law enforcement officials is deterred and public trust in and co-operation with law enforcement can be strengthened.

It is of utmost importance that all allegations of police misconduct are effectively investigated so as to lead to the identification and punishment of those responsible, as required by the well-established case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, there is a need to impose dissuasive penalties on offenders involved in serious human rights violations, in line with the Committee of Ministers’ Guidelines on eradicating impunity for serious human rights violations.

Regrettably, many investigations of human rights violations committed by law enforcement officials are ineffective, as it is often members of the same force who are investigating into actions of their colleagues and there is sometimes a “code of silence” about protecting one’s own. The creation of independent police complaints mechanisms, which exist in United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark, could be one of the solutions to this problem. Other options include empowering national ombudsmen to investigate complaints about law enforcement forces.

Political leaders also bear an important part of responsibility. As the organisation of law enforcement is hierarchical, the discourse and attitudes of politicians, particularly ministers of interior, are rarely ignored by rank-and-file officials. It is extremely damaging to public trust in state institutions when law enforcement officials convicted of misconduct involving ill-treatment are pardoned or receive inadequate sanctions. Political leaders should instil the clear message that responsibility for ill-treatment extends beyond the actual perpetrators to anyone who knows, or should know, that ill-treatment is occurring and fails to prevent or report it.

Strengthening safeguards and restoring trust

States should develop clear guidelines concerning the proportionate use of force by police, including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and firearms in the context of demonstrations, in line with international standards.

In addition, practical and easily adoptable measures should be taken, such as the obligation for riot police officers to display identification numbers in a way which makes them visible from a distance and are brief enough that people can memorise and use them to report abuses.

Furthermore, in the selection, recruitment and promotion of police, special attention should be paid to reports of past misconduct, racist attitudes, and the ability of individuals to withstand stressful situations. The recruitment of officers among minority groups would also help reduce the risk of racially motivated violence and contribute to make the police more representative of society’s diversity. In this context, continuous, systematic human rights training as well as the adoption and implementation of the 2001 European Code of Police Ethics, are essential.

Police misconduct is a long-standing matter of concern, but is not inevitable. Effective means to combat this phenomenon exist and must be used by states. This is an essential requirement for restoring the public’s trust in state authority and safeguarding human rights and the rule of law.

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