How Not to Kill Someone in Mental Health Crisis Armed With A Knife

When police shoot someone in a mental health crisis armed with – a knife, a knife, a knife, a knife, a hammer, a screwdriver, a broom handle, or a rock or any number of other weapons that are not firearms – the question arises: What could they have done differently? 

The officers in such case generally, and understandably, reply by saying that the weapon was potentially lethal, which is true, requiring the response with deadly force, which is only sometimes true. Quite often – Kajieme Powell and Donald Wilson for example – police were in spaces where instead of stepping forward and firing, they could have stepped backwards and invested the scene with both space and time, letting things play out differently.

I say this in talks all the time, describing (based on discussions with law enforcement officials and other experts) how scenarios might have played out differently with the prioritization of stabilization over control, for example. Not all encounters with an armed person in a mental health crisis can be resolved without use of lethal force. And in many cases, the resolution would have to be significantly upstream of the encounter (keeping the person from entering crisis, for example). But many can. Now here’s a video to demonstrate it.

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = “//”; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs);}(document, ‘script’, ‘facebook-jssdk’));

Posted by Filming Cops on Thursday, October 29, 2015

Despite the inflammatory title of the video, this kind of outcome is possible in the US too. Here’s a story from Milwaukee that played out much the same way, we just lack video. Police encountered a person with in mental health crisis and led him on a chase. It wasn’t easy. It was scary. But they saved a life.

The officer, who was joined by another, then encountered Martinez, who was shirtless, holding a large butcher knife and threatening to kill them.

Martinez began chasing the officers around parked vehicles as they yelled at him to drop the knife, and one of the officers even indicated that she was “beginning to wear out from the running,” before Martinez finally dropped the knife and was arrested.

The officer later told investigators, “that this was the most frightening experience she has had as an officer,” and “both officers indicated that they were thinking about the recent incidents locally and nationally at the time of this incident.”

The charges against Martinez come against the backdrop of monthslong demonstrations in Milwaukee and throughout the nation by protesters demanding criminal charges against police officers involved in high-profile deaths of unarmed black civilians, including the shooting deaths of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.


Disability, Trauma, and the Assault at Spring Valley High

Ever since watching the terrible video of a student being pulled from her desk and thrown to the ground, I’ve been waiting to learn how disability intersected with this case. I assumed it would, because the data shows that the two groups most vulnerable to violence at the hands of school authorities are people of color and students with disabilities. Disabled people of color are multiply marginalized, and thus highly at risk – see my pieces here and here
Chart from
It shows 22.3% of all suspensions are black students. 18.1% are disabled.

Once we learned that school resource officer Ben Fields was known as “Officer Slam,” I knew that if we dug into this officer’s background, we’d find disabled victims of his bullying. That’s just what happened. Here’s a story that describes his violent encounter with an autistic student [my emphasis]:

Richland School District Two Superintendent Debbie Hamm admits that “clearly something did not go right,” calling it the most upsetting incident she has seen in her 40 years with the district.
“We will be working with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office to clarify our expectations about screening and training for school resource officers,” said Hamm.
But one parent had a slightly different reaction.
“I saw his face and my first thought was ‘Oh my god, that’s the same guy,'” said Wendy Johnson, who says her autistic son was in a physical struggle with Fields when he was a freshman.
Photos she took of her son after the altercation reveal his shirt torn and marks on his arms and shoulder.

Notice how the Superintendent characterizes the assault on the video as out of the norm. My guess is that “Officer Slam” does this all the time, it’s just now he’s being held accountable. The violence is structural. The
violence is systemic. This is not an isolated incident.  

Then there’s the question of trauma. There’s a major class-action lawsuit in California arguing that victims of trauma should be covered under disability law. It has enormous implications for American education, because up to a quarter of all children, according to Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, will be victims of trauma. If trauma is so common and if should be treated as a disability (both givens that I believe to be true), it may indeed force us to stop treating disability as a deviation from the norm, as a case of “special” needs, but just as needs. We’ll have to move to a system of universal design that requires all interactions with students take the possibility of disability into account.

I don’t know whether the student dragged out of her desk was a victim of trauma. I don’t need to know. Initial reports was that she was a recent orphan, more recent information is that she is estranged from her mother and living in foster care, and now that narrative has been questioned too. We, as a nation, are overly fond of litigating the character of the victim of state violence as a way of determining whether or not they deserved to be brutalized. Such violence is not determined by whether she was a “good victim” or not, but instead whether she was in fact engaged in threatening behavior that merited escalating use of force. Judging by the videotape, she was not. Case closed.

Her lawyer does say that she’s a victim of trauma now, in considerable emotional distress. I believe it. The assault looks traumatizing. Having millions of people view your assault, likewise.

In that classroom, the statistics suggest, there surely were people who had experienced trauma, and who had to observe the violence. That’s only going to make matters worse.

Many traumatized students live in a state of constant alarm. Innocent interactions like a bump in the hallway or a request from a teacher can stir anger and bad behavior 

The lawsuit alleges that, in Compton, the schools’ reaction to traumatized students was too often punishment — not help. 

“They were repeatedly either sent to another school, expelled or suspended — and this went back to kindergarten,” says Marleen Wong, who teaches at the USC School of Social Work and has spent decades studying kids and trauma. “I think we’re really doing a terrible disservice to these children.” 

The suit argues that trauma is a disability and that schools are required — by federal law — to make accommodations for traumatized students, not expel them. The plaintiffs want Compton Unified to provide teacher training, mental health support for students and to use conflict-mediation before resorting to suspension.

We must get these SROs – School Resource Officers – out of the schools. We cannot respond to the prevalence of trauma with more police officers, more violence, or zero tolerance policies. It’s counter-productive. Hopefully, the courts will also decide that it violates the ADA.

#CultOfCompliance – Compelling Compliance for Psychiatric Disability

Here’s a disturbing and complex manifestation of the cult of compliance

Starting next week, San Francisco will be the fifth county in the state to implement Laura’s Law, the measure that allows judges to force severely mentally ill people to get treatment.
The measure is targeted toward people who are resisting care and have a history of hospitalization, incarceration or violence. Family members, mental health providers or police officers can petition the court to compel patients into outpatient treatment, though patients cannot be forced to take medication.

The devil, of course, is in the details of how it’s regulated and enforced. But a history of hospitalization and incarceration does not mean, by itself, at risk for perpetrating violence. I see this law as spreading fear and stigma, the last thing the mental health community should want.

Disability Journalism: Rose Eveleth on not writing ableist garbage

Rose Eveleth has become one of my favorite writers on technology. Lately, she’s been  focusing specifically on prosthetics. It’s an area that technology is rapidly transforming. It’s great to have deeply thoughtful journalists reporting on both the science and the social implications.

In this blog post, she reflects on what she’s learned on her beat and how not to write “Ableist garbage.
1. No Inspiration Porn. (Here’s my intro to that topic and disability journalism). Eveleth writes, in regards to prosthetics: “It can sometimes feel like these stories are not inspiration porn, they don’t fit the mold, but they are all about making able bodied people feel good about the world via the application of technology to a person they assume must be struggling and unhappy.”
2. Remember what prosthetics are for. It’s not just about cool tech saving the world, but helping people who need them.
3. Talk to amputees. “Often, as science journalists, we get really hung up on a particular kind of expert: the scientist, the doctor, the engineer. These people have expertise, sure, but they only have a certain kind of expertise. The patient has another kind, and a kind that is just as important.
Read the whole post!

Peter Singer’s Tells – He thinks his radical opinions on disability are just old news.

Peter Singer came to town to talk about altruism for a humanities festival. Local disability activists (sadly not including me), picketed the event, and the Daily Northwestern covered it. In their interview with Singer, he revealed something new to me.

Singer’s extreme utilitarian views has led him to argue many things with which I disagree (i.e. -to be an altruist go work for Wall Street so you can get rich and do more good than if you work for a humanitarian organization; which ignores a culture of Wall Street that undoes whatever good rich individuals who happen to be altruistic do). In my community, though, we fix on his remarks about disability. They are, namely:

  • The correct ethical choice is to terminate pregnancies following a diagnosis of disability, because that maximizes “happiness.” 
  • This has led him to claims about denying healthcare for disabled infants, to maximize resources for society.
  • And related claims about euthanasia for disabled adults, especially the elderly, being the correct ethical position.

I lost a friend recently over Singer. I criticized him too broadly, she charged into my mentions to slice and dice my critique, I asked her to stop politely, and it went south. I’d rather not lose any more friends. So let me say ahead of time that I know that both Singer and his defenders would say they aren’t actively advocating a Nazi-like murder of the disabled, but just thinking through the problem in a philosophical fashion and that philosophy and ethics should have no conceptual limits.

On the other hand, were he endorsing the elimination of other marginalized segments of the population based on his thought experiments, I am fairly sure he would not be lauded and celebrated around the world as the “most influential” philosopher alive.

One of the criticisms of Singer is that he doesn’t know anything about what life with disability is like. He makes assumptions about happiness that don’t track with reality, and when confronted with the reality of individuals with disabilities who are happy, he makes them exceptions that prove his theories correct, rather than reconsidering his theories.

That may be changing. From the Daily Northwestern [my emphasis]:

Singer later told The Daily that though protesters don’t confront him often, it has happened before.
“Parents ought to have choices if they give birth to a child with a very severe disability about whether that child lives or not,” he said to Hamilton.
The exchange was similar to one he had in 2001 with former disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson at the College of Charleston, chronicled in a 2003 article in The New York Times magazine. When asked about Johnson, Singer said she helped expand his horizons.
“I accepted that maybe the lives of people with disabilities can be better than I had thought,” he told The Daily. “And certainly I think that Harriet was leading a rich and full life. But it is going to vary a lot with circumstances.”
Singer, who said he stands by his former work, is ready to move on.
“I want to find new and interesting things to say,” he told The Daily. “I wrote about the disability movement in the ’80s. It is a very specific problem that affects a very small number of people. The effective altruism movement has a lot more potential to do good.”

If you’re interested in Singer, do go read that New York Times piece. It’s amazing.

This little quote reveals a few things. First, that he’s actually shifted his thoughts on disability a little. That’s news to me.

Second, though, he thinks his ideas from the 80s were so long ago that really people should just leave him alone and let him do his new stuff, and that the disabled are such a small segment of the population that it’s really not a big deal he suggested the correct ethical position is termination.

But just last year, on the radio (as detailed by Lawrence Carter-Long at the National Council on Disability), he once again suggested that healthcare laws would be best (because of utilitarianism) if we admitted the “necessity of ‘intentionally ending the lives of severely disabled infants.'”

So he has he moved on? I don’t think so. He just doesn’t think it’s a big deal and would like protestors to leave him alone.

I, on the other hand, would like academics to treat him as if ableism were as serious as racism, sexism, or homophobia, and stop inviting him to swanky lectures.

Adventures in Universal Design: Handwriting Notes and In-class Exams

Last night I had a long twitter argument about universal design in the classroom. Here’s my position:

I do not intend to ever give another in-class exam, even though I acknowledge there is research that being forced to memorize and study may have beneficial results on learning. I will also not ban laptops in the classroom (I have experimented with turning off wi-fi in the classroom, but I’m not convinced that’s the right away forward), despite the research suggesting that handwriting is better for learning than laptops.

The problem is that we, as teachers, make these decisions based on surface-level reactions to highly mediated studies. We see – handwriting better! We respond – ban laptops! And since we don’t really like our students clacking away on keys and using Facebook, having a study to confirm our pre-existing biases against laptops. And similarly many of us found the process of having to study for exams then sit them in a classroom clarifying and powerful

But there are problems – First, technology is becoming so deeply embedded in our lives that it’s increasingly unlikely we can hermetically seal the classroom from it. Sure, we can ban laptops. But not “fingernail computers” or “eye contact computers” or whatever the future holds.

Second, whatever comes next tech wise, right now there are millions of disabled students for whom handwriting is either sub-optimal or impossible. The ADA gives people with clearly diagnosed conditions the power to accommodate, and that’s an awesome power indeed, but first it leaves people out, and second it suggests that disabled students are doomed to a “second-best” pedagogy. That’s not acceptable to me.

Importantly, I think these studies (if true. Remember the replication issue in psych) do not demand we limit our pedagogy to reward one type of neurotypical student. Instead, these studies say figure out WHY in-class tests have advantages and figure out WHY handwriting and has advantages – then work very hard to achieve those advantages in diverse ways.

For my take home exams, I try to replicate some of the pressures of the in-class exam, because my understanding of the research is that the in-class exam is a useful way to push students to internalize information. For note-taking, I discuss why and how

For note-taking, here’s Josh Eyler (a man who knows vastly more about the scholarship of learning than I do):

There’s nothing magical about a pen and paper. What happens is that when using a pen and paper, students can write less, so they think harder about what to write, and thus take better notes and begin the process of internalizing what’s important. This can be replicated with laptops.

We can do this. We can focus on ends – better learning – and not the means we figured out in eras past to achieve those ends.

Sesame Street and #BoycottAutismSpeaks

In April 2014, Sesame Street announced a partnership with Autism Speaks. Autistic indivduals and their allies quickly organized to push Sesame Street to do better, and not listen solely to a group dedicated to perpetuating the worst stereotypes about autism.

The results are pretty good. From an LA Times article on the process:

Children with autism vary in their traits significantly: some can talk, while others can’t. Many of them are sensitive to noise. Some have trouble keeping eye contact, and many of them experience the world differently, so they’ll touch different objects to explore the sensation of texture. Perhaps because of this range, autism is also extremely controversial. While some organizations, such as Autism Speaks, consider autism a syndrome that calls for research to help mitigate its effects, others, such as the Autism Self-Advocacy Network, simply view autism as an alternative way of expressing oneself.
So by stepping into the fray, and by choosing the traits for one character to represent autism, Sesame Street risked facing backlash.

“Sesame can be a great convener of different interests,” Westin said. “We were able to bring people at opposite ends of the spectrum, pun intended, from Autism Speaks, to the Autism Self-Advocacy Network. Those groups see certain things differently, but what they had in common is they wanted to give families and children tools.” Both groups have released statements supporting the initiative…

Ultimately, after working with these groups and experts from such institutions as the Yale Child Study Center, they decided on these characteristics for Julia: She can talk. She cannot make extensive eye contact. And she flaps her arms when she gets excited. “We chose things we thought would be most helpful and most typical,” Westin said. On top of these markers of autism, Julia is very curious and smart.

 It’s good to see that Sesame Street was willing to listen to actually autistic people and create a positive, realistic, autistic muppet.


Pay attention to South Africa and the #FeesMustFall movement, where students are protesting higher education costs and are being met with state violence. I’ve been watching the hashtag (and some related ones). The attempt to raise fees is broadly seen as a movement to exclude poor black students from higher education.

Here’s a BBC article, but Twitter is the best news sources.

November 14: Joliet Junior College Planetarium Hosts Neurodiverse-Friendly Show

One of my regular twitter correspondents reached out to me recently to discuss his plans for a low-sensory-input planetarium show. He already had all the good ideas, but we chatted and confirmed that this would work, and I’m thrilled he’s moved forward with the plan.

Here’s the announcement. We’re planning to go!

We wanted to host a special event before the holidays get in full swing, and especially take into consideration how certain elements of typical movie theatre presentations are not ideal for children with neurodivergent conditions,” said Morrison. “We are hoping to present a show they will enjoy.”
There will be a 35-minute full dome show for all ages, a brief intermission, and then a 25-minute show for ages 8 and up.
Families who attend the show can expect the following arrangements:
-Some lighting will be kept on in the planetarium throughout the show.
– The sound will be turned down from normal levels.
-Anyone can get up and leave (and then come back) at any time during the show if they need to
– Guides will be available outside the planetarium to direct families to where they need to go
-Families are welcome to bring in their own snacks.

One of the things I really like about this is that while the press release mentions autism and Down syndrome, it’s not a diagnosis-specific event. I wrote some time ago about a Seattle event for kids with autism. When I queried the museum why “autism” only, they said it had to do with funding and of course any child with sensory needs is welcome. But such titles send the wrong message (and fall within the medical model).

So great work Joliet Junior College Planetarium, and maybe I’ll see some of you there.