The recent publicity surrounding episodes of police violence around the
country makes clear that police officers need to be properly trained and
prompt and thorough investigations and corrective action must be taken
against officers who unnecessarily use force against individuals, especially
those who are disabled.
When National Guardsman shot and killed students on the campus of Kent
State in 1970, it inspired legendary artist Neil Young to immediately
write the song "Ohio" in which he implored "how many more?"
The incident galvanized our nation and, indeed, there has not been a killing
of students by the National Guard since that tragic event.
As many of us became transfixed on the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri,
after unarmed black teenager Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police
officer, the question "how many more?" should be replaced by
the mantra, "never again!" But how can that be achieved?
We know that in most jobs and occupations, safety training is provided
to avoid injury to employees and customers. When employers intentionally
fail to provide proper safety policies and training to avoid injury, or
ignore obvious accommodations to an individual employee or customer, the
companies or government entities can be held liable for substantial sums
to compensate the injured party.
The same principle applies to the police. Police are charged to protect
and serve the community, including those with disabilities. When the police
unnecessarily inflict injury or death, the tragic consequences are often
paid for with taxpayer dollars. The
recent police killings of Ezoll Ford, Omar Abrego, and Yanira Serrano by police departments in Los Angeles,
California highlight the need for crisis intervention training here in
Los Angeles and for police agencies across the country.
These police killings are not isolated incidents, and they are foreshadowed
by the inadequate training provided to police officers. Far too few officers
receive the necessary training to intervene safely when someone is uncooperative
or having a crisis and needs help. Instead of approaching subjects in
a manner designed to resolve situations peacefully, police officers often
resort quickly to confrontation, the use of force and, ultimately, deadly
force. The recent case of Bartholomew Williams highlights the cost of
failing to provide the necessary training to law enforcement officers.
Bartholomew Williams was a graduate student on the campus of Cal State
San Bernardino. He was well known to campus police as he was registered
as a disabled student based on his bi-polar disorder diagnosis. In December
of 2012, Bart became disoriented and did not know what day it was, and
he was frustrated because he had missed class deadlines. Police arrived
at the front door of his campus apartment after a disturbance call and
found him peacefully in his own apartment. Everyone, including Bart, agreed
that he needed help.
But what happened next led to his tragic death. The officers didn't
call a mental health professional, a family member or even use verbal
diffusion techniques to create a calm interaction. Instead, the officers
immediately resorted to force after attempting to abruptly handcuff Bart
although he had no weapon and was not a threat to anyone.
When Bart stiffened at an attempt to handcuff him, the police officers
forcibly grabbed him, punched him, sprayed him with pepper spray, hit
him approximately thirty to forty times with batons, and ultimately, shot
and killed him. After the filing of a lawsuit, and depositions of the
involved officers, the Board of Trustees of the California State University
agreed to pay $2.5 million to the parents of Bartholomew Williams in settlement
of the litigation. Perhaps even more importantly, the campus will also
revise its crisis intervention policies and require that its police officers
complete a minimum of 32 hours of Crisis Intervention Training. Municipalities
that have instituted such training report a lower use of force rate and
better relationships with the community. For example, the City of San
Antonio reported a $10 million annual savings after it instituted mandatory
crisis intervention training and a coordinated response emphasizing a
mental health response instead of incarceration.
This type of training should be mandatory for all police agencies, along
with training to recognize mental and physical disabilities that may prevent
individuals from complying with police commands. For example, in 2012,
a jury awarded nearly $1.7 million to a stroke survivor, Allen Harris,
whose semi-paralyzed left arm prevented him from complying with the order
to raise his hands above his head. A police officer violently twisted
and handcuffed his injured arm behind his back and he suffered a broken
collarbone and nerve damage to his wrist. The City of Los Angeles paid
out $2.3 million to Mr. Harris. Remarkably, after an independent witness
confirmed Mr. Harris' version of the events, the City of Los Angeles
shut down its investigation and did nothing to discipline the offending
officer. Instead, he was subsequently promoted to a training officer in
the LAPD even though he had never been properly trained on encountering
individuals with physical disabilities.
Police agencies can look to how beneficial change has been achieved elsewhere
as a model for improvement. After a rash of cases involving sex harassment
in the workplace, California, through its Fair Employment and Housing
Act, instituted mandatory training and prompt corrective action in order
for companies to avoid the harshest economic consequences of the sexual
harassment of their employees. The solution is the same for police agencies.
Police officers need to be properly trained and prompt and thorough investigations
and corrective action must be taken against officers who unnecessarily
use force against individuals, especially those who are disabled.
As another legendary artist,
Bob Dylan, once wrote, "how many times must a man turn his head and pretend that he just
doesn't see?" As video evidence of police brutality becomes more
prevalent, we can all see its impact on our communities. The answers are
clear, but it is going to take more than blowing in the wind to reach
the goal of "Never Again".