#CultOfCompliance: Disabled/Deaf People Killed for Non-Compliance and Disability Erasure

Two disabled men were killed by law enforcement over the last few days. Details are still emerging. 
Both seem to be relatively young white men. Daniel Harris, in Charlotte NC, was Deaf and communicated via sign language. Joseph Weber, in Hays KA, has not been identified by diagnosis, but a local source tells me he was autistic.

A few weeks before that, a Deaf black man, Darnell Wicker, was killed in Kentucky.
All the news coverage of Harris and Weber seem to mention disability in the headlines and ledes. Almost none of the coverage of Wicker mentions disability, and certainly none of the headlines/ledes
So there are two issues: 
  • One – police killing disabled people for not complying. 
  • Two – media coverage of police killing disabled people for not complying. Disability is often erased, and especially so in cases of people of color (who are most likely to be the victims of police misuse of force). 
On the language issue, I spoke to Vilissa Thompson, creator of the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag and an essential writer in the disability community. Strongly recommend making her RampYourVoice a regular read. Vilissa told me:

The erasure of Wicker’s disability in media coverage doesn’t surprise me because it occurs not only within journalism/reporting, but also within the Black Lives Matter movement when the police incidences involving Black disabled people fail to provide this important aspect when discussing the injustice committed.

The disability status of Black disabled people, from Korryn Gaines to Sandra Bland, are omitted for reasons tied to racism and ableism, and it must be addressed. To erase someone’s disability status is both oppressive and offensive. To see it constantly portrayed regarding the lives and deaths of Black disabled people shows that we as a society do not value Black disabled lives, or the disparities they endure from having multiple marginalized identities.

There is work being done between Black disabled/deaf advocates to call out and demand that the experiences of Black disabled people who are victimized and murdered by the police receive the proper coverage that does not ignore their disabilities. This also calls for the experiences of Black disabled people to be fully included within activism conducted among Black liberation groups, disability advocacy groups, and other entities that seek to eradicate oppression and violence. We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand about the experiences Black disabled people endure when it comes to the police – that purposeful exclusion is harming and damning to those of us who hold these identities.

When it comes to the police use-of-force issues, my overall position on the issue of policing remains: disability-specific training is not the answer to these tragedies, only the implementation of police tactics that do not respond to noncompliance, on its own, as a threat justifying the use of lethal force. While new details may emerge, in each case police approached the situations in ways that did not take into account the likely presence of disability. Presuming the possibility of disability has to be built into the standard approach.

Here are links – 

On Harris:

Detectives say Trooper Saunders and Harris got into “an encounter” before he fired his weapon. Neighbors say Harris’ car spun out of control and was shot almost immediately after exiting the vehicle.

They say Harris was likely trying to communicate with the trooper using sign language before he was killed.

On Twitter, there was speculation that Harris may well have been trying to get to his home where someone could support him with communication, which seems reasonable to me. I’m waiting on a formal comment from experts within the Deaf community and will update here.

UPDATE: Talila “TL” Lewis, co-founder HEARD, wrote to me in an email:

The trooper wreaked havoc on Daniel Harris’ car, as evidenced by the videos taken in front of Daniel Harris’ home immediately following the encounter. Regardless of whether someone is Deaf, there is good reason to be fearful of police encounters, especially when they begin with this kind of violence. Relatedly, people with disabilities and Deaf people have a heightened awareness of just how easy miscommunication can occur with police officers who are enraged or in a rush.

In the past, Deaf and disabled people have been known to call family members, friends, interpreters to the scene of a traffic stop or other encounter to facilitate communication. This is Deaf and disabled people’s way of compensating for police officers’ lack of fluency in American Sign Language and lack of Deaf/Disability cultural competency. And so, it is not difficult to imagine that if Daniel Harris was in fear for his life, that he was trying to get to the one place where he knew there was effective communication access–his home–which really was just a few very short minutes away.

For more on Deafness and police use of force specifically, see this joint ACLU/HEARD project. The inability to hear shouted commands places Deaf people especially at risk. The Cult of Compliance, generally, is a cross-disability approach to thinking about policing (and our culture more generally), but it’s worth pausing as well to consider each diagnostic profile and set of risks. Police must – under Title II of the ADA – be prepared for all of them.

On Weber:

According to a release late Thursday by the Ellis County Attorney’s Office, Weber was stopped for a traffic infraction and failed to obey the officer’s commands. As additional officers were called, he sped off from Plaza Avenue and made his way to Timber Drive.

There, the release said, he got out of his vehicle and again failed to obey commands of the officer. The officer fired a shot, hitting the 36-year-old. He died at the scene.

On Darnell Wicker, killed on August 8th. Wicker was carrying a knife and a saw. He did yard work in the area, so perhaps that’s why he was armed, but there are also reports that he kicked in his girlfriend’s door and they called the police. Either way, police must offer reasonable accommodations to disabled people they want to arrest. 

Malone and Proctor said the graphic body camera footage was difficult to watch. They said it was difficult to understand what happened because Wicker is not seen in the video until he collapses on the pavement after being shot multiple times.

“I don’t know about anybody else but it didn’t tell me nothing,” said Malone. “From my perspective he shouldn’t have been gunned down like that.”

“I looked at it a while ago and it just hurt me. My heart is full of tears right now for him,” said Proctor. “When they hollered ‘put the knives down’ I know he didn’t hear them so I know that was a tragic mistake, killing Lawnmower Man and Bicycle Man like that.” 

Family and friends have said Wicker was deaf in one ear and suffered from hearing loss in the other. Proctor said Wicker often relied on reading lips, adding that she was concerned that he might not have understood the officers’ commands.

During a news conference Monday evening Chief Conrad responded to the concerns saying, “The officers were in very close proximity at the time and they were very loud and very clear in their commands to drop it.”

I have not done a thorough survey, but here are some headlines on Wicker that I’ve found:

Disability, when present (and it’s so often present), needs to be part of our standard narrative – not just for media, but also for the professionals tracking police data, for the activists working on reform, for the policy makers, and just generally in our conversations around policing and society.

Thanks again to Vilissa for her contribution and work on this subject.

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