Viewpoints

A police encounter can mean a death for a disabled person. Let’s change the law

Lawmakers, mothers speak out in favor of police use of force bill AB 392

In the wake of the Stephon Clark shooting, Assembly 392 aims to raise the standard under which officers can discharge their firearms. It faced a major test April 9, 2019, in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.
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In the wake of the Stephon Clark shooting, Assembly 392 aims to raise the standard under which officers can discharge their firearms. It faced a major test April 9, 2019, in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.

In the coverage of police use of force, we talk a lot about race — and we should. Black and brown communities bear a greater burden than whites when it comes to violence at the hands of law enforcement.

But there’s another group heavily impacted by police use of force that’s less talked about: people with disabilities.

The danger faced by people with disabilities in a police encounter is laid out in a 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which found that one third to one half of those killed by police are people with disabilities.

Individuals with physical, mental health, developmental or intellectual disabilities may not understand the shouted commands of law enforcement. Their confusion is taken for non-compliance. In this adrenaline-driven “command and control” form of policing, no one is protected. The only ones served are the funeral industry.

Too many California communities know this unnecessary violence, including our own: In 2018, United Domestic Workers of America member Myra Micalizio was killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis. A dedicated home care worker who provided care to Butte County seniors and people with disabilities, Myra was shot by police who were responding to a trespassing complaint.

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Friends and family remember Myra as warm, childlike and giving. They credit her with overcoming a life of trauma through faith. Her life was complicated, but it had value. Police who arrived on the scene judged that value in 15-20 seconds — the estimated time it took them to start shooting at an unarmed woman who was acting erratically.

As a union representing 110,000 workers who provide home care to seniors and people with disabilities, these avoidable tragedies are unacceptable. That is why we have been working for years to support training and develop tools that would assist law enforcement to interact safely with people who live with disabilities.

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Astrid Zuniga
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Doug Moore

One of us is the mother of an adult son with autism who is non-verbal and a “wanderer” who needs constant supervision. She has been a tireless advocate who has led multiple efforts to protect people like her son. As a result, UDW has sponsored bills to alert first responders to missing and vulnerable people with disabilities.

This year, we are sponsoring Assembly Bill 911, the “Manny Alert Act,” which would mandate the development of a statewide system that would allow families to voluntarily provide first responders with helpful information — such as calming techniques — in advance of an emergency.

Training first responders to safely handle interactions with people with disabilities is crucial. But without accountability, and without a broader effort to reimagine policing as a whole, people with disabilities will continue to die needlessly at the hands of law enforcement.

Currently, police are free to use deadly force for no other reason than that they feel threatened. This is too subjective a measure when so many lives are at stake. That’s why our union is co-sponsoring AB 392, which would give police officers the tools to objectively assess threats and respond with deadly force only after exhausting all non-lethal methods.

AB 392 would help us move toward a society where disability, plus a police encounter, does not equal death. We urge all Californians to contact their legislators and demand they support this important legislation.

Astrid Zuniga is executive vice president of the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW/AFSCME 3930). Doug Moore is the union’s executive director.

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