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Story highlights

Perry: North Miami case points to widespread problem -- people with disabilities may not comply with police instructions

A person with disabilities may not be able to comply with police officers, putting them at risk, he says.

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

Charles Kinsey lay on his back in a North Miami street, his hands up in the air. He was talking to his client, an autistic man named Rinaldo, as Rinaldo sat cross-legged next to him, holding a toy fire truck in his hands. Police, armed with assault rifles, were closing in. Kinsey later told reporters, “I was really more worried about him than myself. I was thinking as long as I have my hands up … they’re not going to shoot me.”

Then they shot him.

David Perry
David Perry

Kinsey, thankfully, is going to be OK. He’s going to be able to testify, there’s both video and audio, and I suspect this will be the rare case in which an officer is held legally and professionally accountable for what seems to be an unjust shooting.

But while the specifics of this case are unusual, the general pattern is not. Compliance-based policing – when police treat noncompliance with their instructions, on its own, as a threat – puts everyone at some risk.

Here’s what we know about the incident. A 911 call summoned the officer to the scene of a man armed with a gun contemplating suicide. We don’t know anything more about the call at this time, but none of what it purported was accurate. Rinaldo (his last name hasn’t been reported) was in the street near his group home holding a toy firetruck, and was not, as far as we know, in any sort of distress. But he was also apparently not responding to shouted instructions from the police, and that’s not unusual for people with intellectual disabilities.

This was a highly dangerous situation for Rinaldo. According to my research, published most recently in a study for the Ruderman Foundation, a third to a half of all people shot by police have some form of disability. When it comes to high-profile killings, the number is closer to 80%.

Racism and ableism, which is individual and systemic discrimination against people based on their disability, intersect to make encounters like the one that took place Monday in North Miami very dangerous. Racial bias leads officers to have more contacts with people of color and to treat those contacts as more likely to be hostile. Ableism leads officers to approach people with disabilities as erratic and dangerous. It also leads them to perceive noncompliant behavior as a sign of threat, rather than a sign of disability.

Many police are trained to approach all contacts under a principle of “ask-tell-make.” First you ask someone to comply with orders, then you order them, and then you make them through the use of force. It’s supposed to keep the officer safe, but some police trainers argue it’s a recipe for escalation and places both police and civilians in danger. Rather, such trainers argue, police need to take in the broader tactical situation when deciding how to respond, rather than simply keying off noncompliance.

For example, demanding an autistic person like Rinaldo comply with shouted verbal instructions from strangers is asking him to not be, in that moment, disabled. If force is the response to noncompliance, people like Rinaldo are in mortal peril whenever they encounter cops.

Kinsey may have saved his client’s life. He lay on the ground next to him, lifted his arms in the air, and tried to get his client to do likewise. He shouted at the officers that Rinaldo was just holding a toy truck. He’s a hero.

We don’t yet know why the as yet unidentified officer pulled the trigger. According to Kinsey, the officer didn’t know either. Kinsey told reporters, “And I’m saying, ‘Sir, why did you shoot me?’ and his words to me, he said, ‘I don’t know.’” It gets worse. The officers handcuffed Kinsey and Rinaldo, and gave Kinsey no medical assistance for 20 minutes while he waited for emergency services. Why the handcuffs? Why the delay? The specifics here are inexplicable.

But the pattern that leads to these specifics is perfectly clear. Police demand compliance of a person with a disability, they don’t comply, and the officer escalates. Chicago residents recently testified to the Department of Justice that the Chicago Police Department is “getting away with murdering black disabled people,” a reference to victims such as Laquan McDonald, Quintonio LeGrier, and Stephon Watts. I’ve written repeatedly for CNN about individuals in mental health crises being killed by police, something that happens hundreds of times a year around the country.

Deaf individuals, who may not be able to respond to verbal commands, are at particular risk, as discussed last year by HEARD, the ACLU and actress Marlee Matlin. Autistic individuals like Rinaldo may well not be willing to look officers in the eye or comply with verbal instructions, especially if officers are aggressive. In fact, just last week, according to the family, a Latino autistic boy was tased in California after not instantly complying with instructions regarding his seat belt. New examples appear all the time.

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In the disability community, I’ve personally been told by many service providers – none of whom want to individually go on the record – that they have an unofficial policy of never calling the cops, even when someone is in dire need, because they’re afraid the police will kill their clients.

As the national conversation about police use of force surges again, going viral on social media, seizing the attention of our news organizations, and even becoming a presidential political issue, we need to think about the deadly intersections of racism and ableism. We need to ask ourselves what it is that made this officer in Florida so nervous. He needs to be held accountable, but we also need to address the broader issue. Compliance-based policing puts the most vulnerable members of our society at risk without making police officers any safer.