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Understanding the Policing of Black, Disabled Bodies

A grayscale image of a protest with a sign that reads "Black Lives Matter" as the focal point

Racism and ableism have been intimately woven into the fabric of this country since enslaved people first arrived on the shores of this stolen land.

The nexus of poverty, racism, and ableism was instrumental in the rise of institutions and sanitariums, which were designed to keep so-called undesirables out of sight. Though this nation likes to think of its treatment and acceptance of people with disabilities as ahead of the curve, it is clear that ableism and racism, among other prejudices, leave legacies that must be addressed. Innovative and identity-affirming data collection on state violence can be used to paint a picture that is inclusive of victims with disabilities.


Intertwining of racism and ableism

The uptick in the number of incarcerated people with disabilities is intrinsically tied to race, as structural racism—and its effects on health care, poverty, and inequality, among other areas—contributes to a greater percentage of disabled people within the Black community than in the general population.

Similarly, racism and ableism remain closely intertwined in ongoing conversations tied to police violence.


The false portrayal of disability as a threat to law enforcement

Prioritizing and demanding compliance has always hindered law enforcement’s ability to recognize a person’s disability over the course of an interaction. These misunderstandings can have traumatic, even deadly, consequences.

Law enforcement’s tendency and desire to control all variables in a situation can have devastating effects in situations where an individual may be struggling to communicate or respond due to their disability, whether physical, psychological, or otherwise.

In addition to the use of excessive force, law enforcement have also been shown to remove or deny certain accommodations, such as a cane or wheelchair, related to individuals’ disabilities. Many of the accommodations or supports that are removed are essential for a person’s ability to move or walk—as with crutches, wheelchairs, and prosthetics—or their ability to communicate, such as through a sign language interpreter or communication device.


Opportunities for more inclusive data collection

Current data does not allow cross-referencing of race and disability, so while it may be possible to determine how many Black people and people with disabilities are killed by law enforcement, it is not possible to easily determine how many Black Deaf people are victims. Current data collection must be aggregated across race, gender, and disability status to give a more complete picture of this issue.

Furthermore, while police training is often seen as a quick fix or effective public relations response, there is little information available about what makes such a training effective. There is a need for greater evaluation and data collection—specifically through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and Bureau of Justice Statistics—tied to consistent standards for these trainings across the country.


1 in 4 Black adults in the United States have some type of disability

Data collection is critical to pushing back on false narratives that minimize the problem of how law enforcement treat and respond to people with disabilities, particularly those who are Black.

Understanding the scope and nuances of policing Black disabled bodies is necessary to craft solutions that will help undo the centuries of aggression, violence, and denial of rights that have wrongfully led to the trauma and deaths of far too many individuals.


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Source: The Center for American Progress
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