Police don’t need better training; they need to stop treating noncompliance as justification for violence.
By David M. Perry
Magdiel Sanchez, a 35-year-old Latino man, was sitting on his porch in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night as two law-enforcement officers approached his house. He got up and walked toward them, when, according to news reports and a statement, the officers noticed he was holding a metal pipe. They started giving him “verbal commands” to lie down, then one fired his Taser and the other shot him in the chest with his sidearm. Sanchez died. Officers later claimed not to have heard neighbors shouting that Sanchez was deaf and couldn’t hear their commands.
The police were there because allegedly Sanchez’s father had been in a hit-and-run (injuring property, not people, if the accusations are true). Sanchez carried the pipe, neighbors said, to ward off dogs. He was deaf and reportedly developmentally disabled. In a statement, the ACLU said, “Magdiel Sanchez was shot at his own home, without having committed any crime, and in front of neighbors who knew he was deaf trying to communicate to the police that what they were about to do was wrong.”
Sanchez is far from the first deaf or disabled person to be killed or brutalized by police. It happens almost every day. According to The Washington Post, police have shot 165 people in mental-health crisis in the first 263 days this year (and 715 total). When you add people like Sanchez and individuals with invisible, undiagnosed, or unrevealed disabilities, the numbers start to get much higher. In a white paper I co-wrote in 2016 for the Ruderman Family Foundation, I noted that disability-rights advocates routinely argue that a third to a half of all people killed by police are disabled. Most of those people, especially in cases where police clearly misused lethal force, turn out to also be marginalized by race, class, gender orientation, or other factors that intensify vulnerability.
Sanchez is actually the second high-profile killing of a disabled person just this week (and the fourth probable case, with Eric Alvarez, possibly in mental-health crisis, killed on a Los Angeles highway, and naval officer Nicholas Perkins killed outside his home in Washington after he would not put down a long gun). Georgia Tech campus police killed Scout Schultz, a trans and intersex activist who had been expressing suicidal thoughts. They had called 911 to report themselves as a person with a knife and possibly a gun. After police shot and killed Schultz, the officers found only a closed Leatherman multi-tool. The specifics of each case matter. Each victim’s life deserves to be mourned. Most cases are more like the Perkins situation than the Sanchez one. Still, when it comes to body count, this was a pretty typical week.
I first wrote about disability and policing for The Nation in 2013. I’m not sure anything has improved since then. The people who have been working on this the longest, people like the lawyer Talila Lewis and the organization HEARD and artist and activist Leroy Moore, remain unfunded, even as organizations pour money into trainings for cops. But police don’t need training to choose not to shoot folks like Sanchez. They just have to stop treating noncompliance as a justification for escalation.
Another story of police force and disability, thankfully not involving a fatality, made news this week. The abuse of Connor Leibel, a white, autistic teenager, perfectly demonstrates the ways that escalation in the face of noncompliance puts disabled people in danger every time they encounter the cops. In fact, what I call the cult of compliance puts everyone in danger, if not equally.
Leibel was walking down the sidewalk in an affluent part of Buckeye, Arizona. He first appears on the body cam video as he’s shaking a string in a mild rhythmic motion with his left hand. Officer David Grossman of the Buckeye police department, steps out of the car and approaches the boy, asking him what he’s doing. “I’m stimming,” he says. “I stim with a string.” Within a few minutes, Grossman has Leibel down on the ground, cuffed. “I’m OK, I’m OK,” the boy says to himself, but eventually starts to scream. Later, other officers would arrive, find Leibel’s caregiver nearby, and restore order. Leibel suffered bruises and abrasions. Grossman, reportedly a DUI recognition expert, has claimed in his report that he thought the boy was on drugs. Buckeye Police did not respond to requests for comment.
I took this video particularly personally. My son, a 10-year-old with Down syndrome, also likes to shake things as he stims. His hands are often wrapped around plastic “Mardi Gras” beads, shaking in a kind of circular motion. It’s mesmerizing to watch. He has a pattern that moves the beads from a spin to a drop straight down and then into a slight circle. It’s not typical behavior, but it’s quintessential to my son’s identity. It should not be criminalized.
I reached out to Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Via e-mail, she told me that stimming is normal. “If you’ve ever tapped your fingers against a counter while you were waiting, congratulations, you’ve stimmed. Autistic people tend to stim more often and more intensely. Stimming helps us process the sensory input we’re gathering, stay calm and grounded in an overwhelming universe, and express joy, distress, or whatever we might be feeling.”
Bascom notes that stimming is often treated as aberrant or undesirable behavior by authority figures—not just police, but also teachers and parents. “That said, and this is important,” she continued, this case is not about lack of awareness regarding autism. “Regardless of why he was stimming, this young man should never have been approached at all. ‘Bouncing around’ isn’t a crime. Being autistic in public isn’t a crime. There was absolutely no justification for this young man to be stopped, and obviously no reason for him to have been restrained or slammed to the ground.”
Alex S. Vitale, author of The End of Policing, agrees. He told me that, beyond the issues of disability and policing, “This all starts as a self-directed search for drugs. And since drugs are conceived of [as] automatically dangerous and illegal, the police approach people as dangerous and a threat to be controlled. As soon as the young person said, ‘I’m fine,’ that should have been the end of it.” Both he and Bascom, as well as numerous other experts I consulted from the disability-rights and police-reform movements emphasized that this is not a matter of lacking training, but rather the criminalization of any behavior deemed abnormal or undesirable.
Back to Sanchez, we see similar patterns of police conduct, this time with horrible, lethal, consequences. Sara Nović, who identifies as Deaf and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University, told me via e-mail that the killing emerged from a “perfect storm of communication anxiety for many d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people.” It’s hard to talk to strangers, especially when the stakes are high. It was also dark. She notes, “Even the most skilled deaf communicators/lipreaders struggle in the dark. It is only natural that Sanchez would try to get closer so he could see what was going on, especially because he’d had no involvement in the traffic incident they were investigating. He was sitting on his porch minding his own business; he’d done nothing wrong.” But he didn’t—couldn’t—comply with orders, so a police officer killed him.
So what do we do? When incidents like these happen, departments and some advocates often focus on two deeply troubling solutions: training and registries. Both are based on the idea that police just don’t recognize disability when they see it, or don’t know what to do if they recognize it. Instead, we need to reframe policing, decriminalize noncompliance, and remove police from as many situations as possible.
In abstract, training is a fine thing. Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training was developed in the 1980s in Memphis and has now spread around the country. I’ve sat through many hours of CIT training in states such as Texas, Maryland, and Illinois. The quality of instruction varies, but the curriculum is constant: Hours spent describing disabilities, what it’s like to be disabled, and then some (actually pretty good) role-playing exercises. Many states have implemented developmental-disability specific training, including (as noted in The New York Times), autism programs. It’s good for police to know what a mental-health crisis is, that autistic people might not look you in the eye, and how to find resources.
At the same time, trainings send the message that the problem is behavior in cases related to disability, rather than core issues related to quick escalation. If a person with autism shouldn’t be brutalized for shaking a string, neither should a drug user. If a deaf person shouldn’t be shot for not hearing commands, neither should a person wearing ear buds. These trainings are also not free, and every dollar spent on policing could be spent elsewhere. A year ago, the Department of Health and Human Services gave Chicago a million dollars to address trauma in the communities. The city spent most of it on police training, not on the communities.
The second suggestion, registries of disabled people, is even more concerning. There have long been advocates for making lists of disabled people to give police more information, but people should not have to hand their names to the police to be guaranteed basic civil rights. Most recently, an app called Vitals has been making news. It allows police to read personal data off an chip that one can wear. “It’s the Mutant Registration Act,” said Rebecca Cokley, former executive director of the National Council on Disability, referring to a bill from the comic series X-Men that required individuals with super powers to lodge their identities with the government.
Instead of training police to grant people they recognize as disabled specific rights, victims like Leibel and Sanchez demonstrate the need for police to operate with a baseline of presumption of compliance. When significant threats emerge, as does tragically happen, officers will need to respond. But when Sanchez walked forward, surely the officers could have stepped back. When the autistic boy was shaking his string, the officer could have just decided not to cuff a child, even if he didn’t recognize the word “stimming.” There are so many ways to improve the situation without asking for specialized training.
At least four disabled people died at the hands of police this week. One previous case of unjustified police violence came to light. Except for the brief media attention of the Sanchez and Leibel cases, that’s a pretty normal week. It’s unlikely anyone will be held accountable, except possibly in the situation where Leibel, a white teenager in an affluent neighborhood, was brutalized. There, the combination of powerful video, a compelling victim, widespread coverage, and a good lawyer might help. In the other cases, the multiply marginalized status of the victims plus the lethality of the encounter will make accountability difficult, if not impossible. And then next week, alas, the same types of stories will play out again, and more people will die.