The African American community has been joined by many citizens in expressing concern at two unrelated, but similar instances resulting in the deaths of unarmed citizens, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, at the hands of police. The outpouring of concern was followed by prayer at churches across the country. Broad support is turning out to draw attention to this issue. The effort exposes the seemingly near impossibility of indicting a member of law enforcement for their actions. In the calls for justice, there has been recognition for mandatory training and increased diversity on police forces.
Recently, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman outlined steps to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system. He sent a letter to Governor Cuomo requesting an interim executive order to direct the Office of the Attorney General to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute cases involving unarmed civilians killed by police officers.
As this issue gets addressed, it will be important for the Attorney General to consider other protected classes in these matters, such as people with disabilities. In Maryland, a recent headline ended in a death by law enforcement of an unarmed man, Ethan Saylor, a young man with Down syndrome. He wanted to see a movie for a second time when police were called to remove him. Because of his size, three handcuffs were used and he was subdued face down on the ground and left unattended. He was not able to breathe and died of asphyxia. A Grand Jury did not indict the officers. Link to article: http://alternativemediasyndicate.com/2014/12/08/grand-jury-robert-ethan-saylor-no-cop-indictment/.
In California, Jonathan Meister stopped by a friend’s house to pick up snowboarding equipment. He waited outside. A neighbor called 911 believing it to be suspicious. The police approached Jonathan but he couldn’t hear or respond because he was deaf. He dropped boxes to use his hands to sign. They restrained him, but he broke free, jumped a nearby fence to use it as a barrier, so he could use his hands to signal that he was deaf. The officers promptly pummeled and tased Mr. Meister unconscious. Link to article:http: //rt.com/usa/california-police-taser-deaf-man-097/.
In both instances, knowledge about their particular disabilities could have helped to avert the situations. As mentioned earlier, part of the answer is to increase diversity on police forces. Even as this continues to be improved, training efforts will have to be increased and prioritized. In our state, the First Responders Training Program based at Niagara University is making progress to help promote disability awareness on this subject. Link to website: http://www.fr-dat.com/. Dave Whalen is a council member and has been busy training a wide variety of police and fire departments, counties, and other stakeholders. In 2014, Dave facilitated four train-the-trainer sessions with law enforcement in Erie, Essex, and Monroe Counties as well as a state conference. Seventy trainers from thirty-seven departments participated. Below is a recent testimonial related to his trainings:
“I just wanted to take the time to thank you for the training over the past couple
of days. Dave clearly has a passion for the work that he is doing and it is evident
in the way he presented the material. I have attended quite a few trainings in the
11 years I have been doing this job and this one ranks right at the top. This is a
topic that I didn’t realize covered so much and is so important to our jobs every
day. So on behalf of the Geneva Police Department I would like to thank you for the
opportunity to pass along this important training to the officers of the Geneva
Police Department.” – Sgt. Michael Passalacqua, Geneva (NY) PD
In early August of this year, I met my civic obligation and served on a jury for a week-long trial in county court. The jury selection process was like organized chaos. When we were seated as a jury, the judge was very clear in his directions about the case and the limitations that shaped the parameters related to the charges. As we listened to witnesses and were presented with evidence, it raised several questions. Such as, “Why was the inmate going through detoxification in a cell? Shouldn’t he have been under medical care first, then returned to a cell once stabilized? Was his “behavior” really in reaction to their “authority,” or was it more the “side effects of his withdrawal?” Apparently, this thought process was off track and not within the scope of our specific instructions. In the end, given the instructions we were given, our jury found the inmate guilty of the charges.
I met my civic obligation, but my service on the jury gave me a glimpse of how exact, restricted, and narrow our court system is structured. Does it provide justice? Perhaps more so than other countries; but how do we address injustices and recognized trends or issues such as the one before us? Here are some truths:
• The demographics in our country are changing. Non-whites will become the majority by 2043. We need to embrace this change and understand that there is strength in diversity. I hope I live long enough to witness this transformation.
• Despite recent events, people should not look negatively at police officers. They provide a vital service for our communities. There are many positive, dedicated people in law enforcement. I personally know and am friends with several. Some have been my friends since junior high; others live in my neighborhood. Their effort will be needed to help make this change.
• This issue is not new. Recent events are raising it to a level where something needs to be done to make it a priority! Activists, members of all communities, and the media need to continue to increase awareness so that political leaders work with law enforcement and the criminal justice system to identify and make change occur to have a lasting impact on this issue for the African American and other communities.