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Cops Are More Likely to Arrest Disabled People

“People in prison are more likely to have a disability so it’s hardly surprising that arrests would similarly have a disproportionate impact.”

S.E. Smith

Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As conversations about disparities in police killings and incarceration rates hit the news, one researcher wanted to answer a simple question: What’s the demographic profile of people being arrested? “I was looking for data and I was unable to find it, so I went out and I made it,” says Erin J. McCauley, the author of a new study on disability and arrest rates and a doctoral candidate in policy analysis and management at Cornell University.

Her work appears in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health, and it provides valuable insight into the demographic profiles of people arrested across the US. Specifically, McCauley found that disabled people—including people with emotional, physical, cognitive, or sensory disabilities—are much more likely to be arrested before age 28 than nondisabled people, and that these statistics are even more dramatic for disabled people of color.

Mark Murphy, managing attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, says the findings aren’t terribly surprising—they reemphasize something disability advocates are already well aware of. “People in prison are more likely to have a disability,” he says, “so it’s hardly surprising that the arrest that starts all this would similarly have a disproportionate impact.”

That doesn’t mean McCauley’s work isn’t important: Having this data makes it much easier to identify areas where the US urgently needs law enforcement reform, and McCauley hopes her work will lead others to delve into more detail on this issue.

Her study is primarily descriptive: She wanted to look at the probability of being arrested by age 28 in the United States, relying on data from National Longitudinal Surveys developed by the Department of Labor, a data source she says many social scientists use for demographic work. While the self-reported nature of the source presents some limitations, it creates a starting point for a larger conversation. What she found was a sobering affirmation of what advocates already knew: Disabled people have a cumulative probability of arrest by age 28 of nearly 43 percent, versus 30 percent among nondisabled people.

It gets worse, though: Disabled black and nonwhite Hispanic people are much more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. Some disparities are particularly dramatic, as in the case of black women, who are twice as likely to be arrested if they’re disabled. The types of disability were similarly prevalent across race and ethnicity, which suggests that differences in arrest rates were due to racial discrimination.


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The purpose of McCauley’s work wasn’t to explore specific causes for this phenomenon, though she did offer some thoughts. “There is something about the interaction of disability and race that is putting people at particularly high risk,” she noted. She also noted that many negative interactions with law enforcement officers in the disability community start with “noncompliance,” when someone doesn’t respond to orders from law enforcement.

That’s something Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, a legal fellow with Disability Rights California, is very well aware of. “Conditions that are associated with certain disabilities may have very negative consequences during encounters, because they impair the ability to respond.” That can include d/Deaf people failing to respond to orders they can’t hear; people in mental health crisis; cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities that make it harder for people to understand; or something like a hypoglycemic crisis. Large numbers of fatal police encounters involve disability, underscoring the high stakes of this issue. When law enforcement officers make decisions in a split second and they have little-to-no training in disability issues, an apparent failure to listen or comply can play a role in how officers perceive danger, Ressl-Moyer says.

Law enforcement training is something both McCauley and Ressl-Moyer think could be an important step in the direction of improving the disparities in the arrest rate. But there’s a deeper problem at work. “Local ordinances and state laws criminalize disability,” Ressl-Moyer says, noting that the legal system is stacked against disability from the start.

One example is sit/lie laws, which target the homeless community, and often sweep up the disability community by extension. These laws prohibit sitting or lying on public sidewalks, ostensibly for public health and safety, but advocates claim they have the effect of criminalizing people who have nowhere to go. Laws that indirectly penalize people for living in poverty are another issue; as much as 29 percent of the disability community lives in poverty. In these instances, the system is working exactly as designed—and it’s a bad design.

Murphy notes that many communities lack both a financial and social commitment to services for the disability community, a particularly extreme problem in the case of mental health. Intersections between mental health and homelessness can’t be ignored, with 20 to 25 percent of homeless people living with symptoms of mental illness. Often, police are tasked with being first responders to calls for assistance in crisis, which shouldn’t be the case, Ressl-Moyer says. Diversion programs, crisis intervention teams, and better access to mental health services in the first place could head some of these issues off at the pass.

If McCauley’s study affirms an issue the disability community is already well aware of, the same holds true for communities of color: The arrest rate disparities on the basis of race are striking. “I was really excited for them to acknowledge the intersection of disability, race, and gender,” Ressl-Moyer says, and McCauley herself similarly stresses that the solution to differential arrest rates must include both race and disability, together. “We need to look at structures that affect this, like implicit bias and structural racism,” she says.

Addressing the myriad issues with law enforcement in the United States is a challenging problem, and one without a single clear solution. Work like McCauley’s helps us understand what that problem looks like, and creates a baseline: If we review the data in the future, after initiatives to reduce disparities in arrest rates, it should change. The current framework that criminalizes disability and racial status through the law is clearly one key element of reform, along with effective bias training and community education for law enforcement to help officers better understand how to protect and serve their communities.

Correction 12/7/17: A previous version of this story misspelled Tifanei Ressl-Moyer's last name. We regret the error.

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