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Police sometimes use excessive force on disabled people

Disabled people are as much a part of society as everyone else, including here in Columbia. Some disabilities required reasonable accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps. In another example, when police encounter a disabled person, it may be necessary for the officers to change their tactics to avoid harming the person.

Unfortunately, many police departments are untrained for dealing with disabled people. In one incident, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome was killed by a trio of police officers in January 2013.

The man had gone to see a movie at a mall with his caretaker. When the movie finished, he remained in his seat, hoping to see it again. An employee called three off-duty officers who were working security at the mall.

The officers handcuffed the man and forced him to the ground. Perhaps because of the man’s size, this position caused him to stop breathing. The officers tried to revive him, but he died at the hospital.

Another case did not end in tragedy, but still illustrates how failing to understand the symptoms of disability can cause officers to overreact to a relatively simple situation. The parents of a developmentally disabled woman have sued Wal-Mart and a police department in Michigan, charging both with falsely accusing their daughter of shoplifting and traumatizing her.

A Wal-Mart employee monitoring a security camera claimed that the woman, who has the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, hid some hair ties in her waistband and purse and tried to walk out without paying. In fact, the woman and her grandmother had paid for the ties and had the receipt to prove it.

Wal-Mart employees surrounded the woman and called police, upsetting her. They refused to let the grandmother calm her down. Police claim that when they arrived, the woman was screaming “at the top of her lungs, causing a scene.” Claiming he saw a possible weapon -- which turned out to be the woman’s cellphone -- one officer ordered her to put her hands behind her back.

After that, officers pushed her against a wall, then “muscled” her to the ground before putting her in handcuffs, according to a police incident report. They interrogated the terrified woman, and threatened to perform a body search until her mother, who had arrived at the store, did one herself. No stolen merchandise was found on the woman, and the police let her go.

Today, the woman is terrified of police and of Wal-Mart. Perhaps if the officers involved had been more accommodating of her disability, the misunderstanding could have been resolved without traumatizing her.

Source: USA TODAY, “Family of mentally disabled woman sues Wal-Mart, cops,” Tresa Baldas, June 16, 2014

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