Scott’s Disability May Have Gotten Him Killed, and He’s Not the Only One

Police BlueBy Claudia Center

Last week in Charlotte, North Carolina, police shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a Black man with a disability. This happens with gut-wrenching frequency. It happened again this week in El Cajon, California, where police shot and killed Alfred Olango, a Black man with mental illness. Yet disability is often overlooked as a factor in police killings and use of force.

A recent widely cited report on the issue estimates that up to one half of all use of force incidents involve individuals with disabilities, noting that “[d]isability is the missing word in media coverage of police misuse of force.” People with mental disabilities, especially people of color, are particularly at risk of being shot or beaten by the police.

Mr. Scott’s horrific killing, captured on video, is far too typical. Just before police shot and killed Mr. Scott while he was sitting in his car, his wife shouted, “He has a TBI. He’s not going to do anything to you guys. He just took his medicine.”

A “TBI” is a traumatic brain injury, and it’s a term widely known within law enforcement and other emergency service providers. As with a number of disabilities in the U.S., African-Americans are more likely to have a TBI. People with brain injuries experience problems in cognitive skills and typically think, speak, and process information more slowly than other people. A person with a traumatic brain injury easily becomes confused with sudden changes in their environment and may not be able to immediately understand and comply with police commands.

The videos released so far do not show any attempt by the police to seek more information — or to take into account the information provided on the scene — regarding Mr. Scott’s disability. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department must release all footage and dispatch information associated with the shooting so that Mr. Scott’s family and the public can better understand whether Mr. Scott posed an immediate threat and whether de-escalation strategies such as patience, calm communication, and backing up could have prevented this latest fatal police shooting.

As in many similar incidents, police contend that Mr. Scott was shot because he failed to comply with their commands. But seeking immediate compliance from a person with a TBI, PTSD, or a similar disability and then shooting them dead for noncompliance is in effect killing someone based on their disability. Absent an immediate threat that cannot be safely contained, this type of lethal policing violates the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We know how to achieve safer outcomes.  Last year, San Francisco police shot Mario Woods more than twenty times after surrounding him and demanding that he drop his knife. But last week, police in San Francisco safely resolved a standoff with an armed suicidal man pacing with a gun outside of city hall. Officers responding to the scene saw the weapon. But rather than confronting him, they cordoned off the area and brought in crisis negotiators to talk to the man, calm him down, and wait him out. After several hours, the man surrendered, and the police arrested him and took him to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. And last year, police in Camden, N.J., safely deescalated a situation with a man brandishing a knife by keeping their distance and using calm communication. This type of safer policing should be available to everyone.

What will it take to end the epidemic of avoidable police killings?

Police departments must change policies, practices, and procedures. Use of force policies must prioritize deescalation and the preservation of life over compliance. Law enforcement leadership and chain of command must be committed to eliminating the compounding effects of bias against people of color and disability discrimination. Police need to provide real accountability: transparency, community oversight, and direct consequences for officers and supervisors who fall short. And we need to strengthen our community mental health resources and outreach to prevent confrontations between armed officers and individuals with disabilities in the first place.

Claudia Center is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    i had to actually work the other day, but this article notes what i would – a lot of these shootings involve police mishandling encounters with mentally ill individual.  you’re just not going to get the normal compliance from mentally ill individuals.  there’s always a talk about officer safety – expand your zone.  create space.  put things in between.  use time to your advantage.  allow things to calm down rather than escalate.

  2. Frankly

    “He has a TBI. He’s not going to do anything to you guys. He just took his medicine.”

    Wouldn’t everything be so swell in utopia where everyone tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…

    1. Tia Will

      Wouldn’t everything be so swell in utopia where everyone tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…”

      And wouldn’t it be so swell if officers did not assume that information given to them on the street was irrelevant or lies ?  How about confirm first, shoot later ?

      If a woman is brought into the ER bleeding profusely, since I am a surgeon, should I assume that she needs surgery immediately ?  Or would I be better off listening to her accompanying family member who says she has a severe bleeding disorder than should be treated medically ?

  3. South of Davis

    The cops are not trained to “capture” crazy people or wild animals so when you call the cops about a crazy person or wild animal there is a good chance they will “shoot” the person or the animal if they think the person or animal is going to hurt someone else (their job is to protect the “public” not crazy people and wild animals).

    In Sonoma County a while back a family called the cops saying “our son is crazy and has a knife and we think he is going to kill someone”.  The cops came out, agreed with the family and shot the guy when he would not put the knife down the knife.

    In Palo Alto over 10 years ago a mountain lion wandered in to town.  The cops didn’t want it to rip a kid to shreds so they shot it and just about everyone in the Bay Area went nuts that they didn’t hit it with a dart and capture it in a net (like Jim on the Wild Kingdom always did).

    1. Eric Gelber

      SOD –

      You have said a lot of outrageous things on the Vanguard–but I believe you’ve outdone yourself. Equating people with psychiatric disabilities or, in this instance, TBI to wild animals and suggesting that they be treated in the same manner is hateful and despicable.

      You are wrong to assert that police are not trained to deal appropriately with people with mental disorders (who you offensively refer to as “crazy people”). E.g., Mental Health Training in Law EnforcementCrisis Intervention Behavioral Health Training. Police have the same obligations and responsibilities to protect people with mental disabilities that they have to the rest of the public. That includes the obligation to use only reasonable force. Unless there is an immediate threat that cannot be mitigated, they are obligated under the Americans with Disabilities Act to utilize reasonable efforts to de-escalate a situation when dealing with people with disabilities.

      In no sense are people with disabilities less than human or to be treated like wild animals.

        1. Grok

          I have posted in other places that I will not post under my own name or submit articles until there is an effort to have real people be accountable for what they post by making a systematic effort to link posts to actual names.


        2. Matt Williams

          Grok, I know from personal experience that you have never hesitated to hold the current non-anonymous posters accountable.  Is that not practicing a double standard?  With that said, I have a great deal of respect for you based on our numerous interactions over the recent months my sense of you is that you would be unfazed by any slings and arrows thrown your way.  Am I missing something?  . . . especially in light of the fact that you “outed” yourself at the Hyatt House public hearing.  It’s a puzzlement.

      1. South of Davis

        Eric wrote:

        > Equating people with psychiatric disabilities or,

        > in this instance, TBI to wild animals

        I am not “Equating people with psychiatric disabilities to wild animals”.

        The point I am trying to make is that if a cop tells someone (or some thing) to stop and they (or it) does not stop the cops tend to shoot at it.

        Cops will shoot at a sane person, a crazy person a deaf person a guy with headphones, a dog or even the tires of a truck without a driver if they stay stop and what they are yelling at doesn’t stop…

        P.S. My other point is if you don’t want your dog, kid or car shot at don’t call people with guns and ask them to come to your house to try and stop your dog, kid or car from doing something…

        1. David Greenwald

          “The point I am trying to make is that if a cop tells someone (or some thing) to stop and they (or it) does not stop the cops tend to shoot at it.”

          And that’s what needs to change

        2. South of Davis

          David wrote:

          > And that’s what needs to change

          It will be easier for people to “change” who they call when someone they don’t want shot is acting strange than to “change” the human nature that causes people with a weapon to use that weapon when they feel scared or out of control…

          I’m not going to tell anyone what to do, but if I need help dealing with my kids, dog or cat (like the guy in the link below) I’m not going to call 911 and ask them to send police with guns to my house.

          1. David Greenwald

            Having had conversations with mental health professionals over the years, I think you’re wrong about how it would get approached. We’ve seen situations where facilities are the ones who call the police because the police are the ones trained to handle dangerous situations. We also know that Yolo has a pilot program to have a therapist who can roll out with them. There are changes to the way things are handled but some of these departments are behind the times.

        3. tribeUSA

          I’m incredulous at some of the responses to SODs post above.

          At no point when I read SOD’s comment did it occur to me that he was equating treatment of people with that of animals (I sometimes wonder where the minds of people are who do think this–its as though they have a radar up to detect something that might be offensive, and this activates a computer in their mind that interprets as something that is maximally offensive).

          The main takeaway point I took from SODs post was that there was more public outcry over the shooting of a mountain lion than the shooting of a person. This is an observation, not an opinion. Part of the problem in our culture is that often observations themselves are very offensive to some people.

  4. Biddlin

    ” don’t call people with guns”

    Not everyone is as trigger happy as cops. You’re right about cops, though, that is their default solution to every conflict. That’s why I don’t think they can be rehabilitated. We hired the wrong people for the job.

  5. tribeUSA

    I saw a news blurb last week that Mr. Scott was on record (with the police) of threatening one of his relatives with a gun last year. Were not a leg holster and a gun found on him (according to the police)? His Mom was evidently wrong about that, even if it turns out she was right about TBI. A mentally impaired person acting erratically with a gun may be even more of a threat to the public than a person of perfectly sound mind; if the police are accurate in their assertion that he was waving a gun around and was non-compliant; then they indeed are fully justified in having shot him. I don’t know; guess we can Monday-morning quarterback and come up with some ways of de-escalating the situation and/or effectively using non-lethal force.

    I agree its too bad this mentally impaired person was able to get hold of a gun. I don’t know how a cop can do an instant on-the-spot psychiatric diagnosis and know the best course of action to de-escalate the situation for that particular psychiatric condition (I wonder if even a psychiatrist could have calmed him?). Seems a mite unrealistic to me. Too bad his relatives couldn’t have helped more to keep him out of trouble (though I do understand that they indeed may have tried, but failed).

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