ON JULY 24, a 29-year old resident of a group home for people with developmental disabilities died after police used stun guns and pepper spray during a 10-minute struggle in the home where he lived.
Dainell Simmons had lived in the group home in suburban Suffolk County on Long Island since it opened six years ago. Police reported that staff at the facility called 911 to request assistance transporting him to a psychiatric emergency room after he "created a disturbance" in the facility, running around and banging into the walls for about half an hour.
By the time police arrived, Dainell had calmed down and was sitting on a couch talking to staff. Police claim he assaulted them when they attempted to handcuff him for transport to the emergency room. A struggle ensued, and police used stun guns at least twice, as well as pepper spray. After being handcuffed, Simmons lost consciousness and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Neither the operator of the group home nor the state's Office for People with Developmental Disabilities had any comment on what occurred, and news accounts were based solely on the police statement. Police noted Simmons' height and weight in justifying the use of stun guns and pepper spray, but the nature of his disability was not disclosed.
Police characterized him as "emotionally disturbed," a term that appeared in many of the news stories. Comments following one of the stories on the web included two former staffers who said they knew Simmons, and that he was diagnosed with autism. Both said that, handled competently by properly trained professionals, the situation could have been resolved without the use of weapons.
In response to Simmons' death, one parent of an adult group home resident has begun a petition to mandate training for first responders on interacting with people with disabilities.
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THE DEATH of Dainell Simmons is the latest in a long series of incidents involving police violence against people with disabilities. In February, a 26-year old man with Down Syndrome died of asphyxiation after police restrained him face-down on the ground when he failed to leave a theater at the end of a movie. The death was ruled a homicide, but a grand jury failed to indict any of the officers who responded.
In Toronto in 2011, a 45-year old man who was unable to speak as a result of traumatic brain injury he sustained as a child was beaten with batons when he failed to respond to police questions. He collapsed and died later, possibly of a brain hemorrhage.
In 2012, six officers in Fullerton, Calif., were caught on videotape beating a homeless man diagnosed schizophrenia for refusing to comply with their instructions. One officer threatened Kelly Thomas, saying, "See my fists? They're getting ready to start fucking you up." Although Thomas never made any violent move toward the officers, two held him down while four punched and Tasered him for eight minutes, leaving him comatose. Thomas died five days later.
In 2012, the U.S. Justice Department concluded that police in Portland, Ore., systematically abused people with psychiatric disabilities, especially in communities of color. Nationally, estimates are that nearly half of the victims of police shootings have some history of a diagnosed mental disorder, although no national data is collected.
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THE CIVIL rights movement for people with disabilities resulted in massive "deinstitutionalization"--the closure of long-term facilities where people with disabilities were locked up and forgotten--and the right for people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities to live in the community. What was supposed to follow--support and services in the community to ensure the opportunity for full and equal engagement in society--has never materialized.
People with disabilities are stigmatized and denied appropriate care, and face vastly increased risk of homelessness. Some 6 percent of Americans are diagnosed with a severe mental disability, but more than 20 percent of homeless individuals have such a diagnosis. As the sadistic beating of Kelly Thomas demonstrates, a homeless person with a psychiatric disability is frequently vulnerable to police abuse.
Since 2008, demand for community-based mental health services increased by about 10 percent, while funding has been slashed. The lack of continuing, quality mental health services makes crisis more likely, with the police functioning as gatekeepers for the crisis care system. In effect, disability is criminalized as an offense against public order.
People with developmental disabilities have traditionally been better served with community housing, but frequently require additional support accessible only through psychiatric emergency rooms. Wilson, a residence manager working with adults with developmental disabilities in New York City, told SocialistWorker.org about the dilemma facing workers:
It's really hard, you know, because you never want to call 911. But sometimes you need the ambulance to get people to the ER. The cops come in, they don't want to be there, they don't want to hear what we have to say. Sometimes I'll spend hours trying to get someone calmed down, and that can unravel pretty quickly if the cop starts barking out orders. Sometimes I'd like to assign a crisis worker or have someone stay with a resident they know really well, but we can't do overtime these days, so sometimes we end up calling for an ambulance, and that means the cops.Wilson said police officers often assume individuals with disabilities are drunk or on drugs, and they often display a belief in common myths about people with disabilities--such as that they are like children in adult bodies or that they possess superhuman strength. He says one officer seemed to resent the very existence of the community residence. "He said, 'I guess this is where my tax money goes.' I looked at him and said, 'And I guess my tax money goes to your salary.'"
While the demand for more training for police as a short-term response may prevent some tragedies such as the killing of Dainell Simmons, longer-term solutions involve more and better housing with clinical support available at home, and more and better care in the community. This would minimize the need for trips to the psychiatric emergency room and short-term hospitalizations, which are traumatic and disruptive of people's lives.
Crisis response, when still needed, should be performed and supervised by trained, knowledgeable people, rather than police officers accustomed to thinking of people with disabilities as "perps" to be taken into custody.