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Disabled lives matter, too

By Aaron Fischer and, Tifanei Ressl-Moyer Special to The Bee

February 5, 2018


Last summer in Citrus Heights, James Bradford Nelson, a man with mental illness who had been acting erratically, had his skin seared on the hot pavement until he passed out as police held him to the ground.


A year earlier in Burbank, a police officer pulled over Tawnya Nevarez and her teenage son, who has autism and was not wearing a seat belt. The officer ignored her pleas about how to respond to her son’s agitation and confusion and instead pepper-sprayed and Tasered him, causing a seizure.


People with disabilities encounter law enforcement at a disproportionately high rate, sometimes with tragic results. They face higher rates of arrest, incarceration and use of force. A new Cornell University study has found that these disparities are even more glaring when disability, race and gender are considered together.


For example, a black woman who has a disability is twice as likely to have been arrested by age 28 as a black woman who does not. While half of black men without a disability will be arrested by age 28, those odds jump to two in three for black men with a disability.


The Black Lives Matter movement has spurred many reforms in how police departments relate to communities. Yet media coverage has focused on race while glossing over the role that disabilities have played in fatal encounters with law enforcement.


California is taking some steps in the right direction. The state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board released a report in January that looks at disparities in law enforcement actions, based separately on race, gender, disability, age or sexual orientation.


But to improve the criminal justice system, we must understand that disparities influenced by disability, race and gender are deeply intertwined.


Take the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case of Dethorne Graham on police use of force. Officers pulled over a car carrying Graham, whom they had seen acting strangely at a convenience store. He got out of the car, ran around it twice and then briefly lost consciousness. Even after he and a friend explained that he was experiencing a diabetes-related low blood sugar episode that could be treated with orange juice, the officers told Graham to “shut up,” handcuffed him and slammed him against the car, breaking his foot.


Not mentioned in the court’s decision is that Graham was black, but it is worth considering whether the combination of his race and disability played a role in what happened to him that day.


Meaningful progress to end unnecessary arrest, incarceration and use of force of people with disabilities will require better law enforcement training, comprehensive data collection and analysis and enhanced community-based services. A diverse representation of people with disabilities should be at the table in criminal justice reform efforts. Otherwise, any progress we make will be limited, and leave those most vulnerable behind.


Aaron Fischer is litigation counsel at Disability Rights California and can be contacted at Tifanei Ressl-Moyer is a legal fellow at the group and can be contacted at

This story was originally published February 5, 2018 12:00 PM.

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