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”.
Attorney V. James DeSimone is a 35+ year experienced civil rights & employment lawyer in Southern California. Jim is a Super Lawyer, Rated “Superb” by Avvo, and is a US News & World Report Best Law Firm in California.
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