On May 25, 2017, Adam Trammell was visited by three West Milwaukee police officers. These officers were responding to a call made by a neighbor, reporting that Adam had been in the corridor naked and talking about the devil. Adam, a 22-year-old man with schizophrenia, was in the midst of a breakdown and needed help.
Police body cam footage captured what happened next. On forcibly entering his home, the police officers found Adam alone, naked, and unarmed in his shower. Based on mistaken information given by the neighbor, the officers repeatedly addressed Adam as ‘Brandon’ and commanded that he get out of the shower.
Adam did not comply. Instead, he splashed the officers with water, a technique that Adam’s dad believes he may have used to decipher if the strangers in his home were real or part of a delusion.
In response, the officers tasered a naked and screaming Adam. Adam remained unresponsive and the officers continued to subject Adam to brutal electric shocks. His screams became more desperate as the encounter progressed. He was terrified and in pain. Adam was terrorized in his own home by the very officers meant to protect and serve.
More police officers arrived, and Adam was forcibly removed from his bathroom. After dragging Adam from his apartment, the police officers injected the still naked man with sedatives. Adam stopped breathing and was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.
The officers involved in this case were not prosecuted. The cause for Adam’s death was reported as “excited delirium.” The use of tasers, a painful weapon classified as”‘less lethal” rather than safe, was justified as a viable method for gaining control of Adam, so that he might receive medical attention.
Sadly, the case Adam Trammel is far from an isolated incident. Similarly shocking, are the cases of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year old man with Down Syndrome who was killed by police officers because he refused to vacate a movie theatre, and Madgiel Sanchez, a deaf and intellectually disabled man shot because he was holding a pipe and didn’t obey verbal requests made by the police. For many individuals living with a disability, interactions with police officers can be deadly, particularly if their disability is mental or intellectual in nature.
While cases such as Adam’s, Robert Ethan’s, and Madgiel’s have received considerable media attention, there are many more instances of police brutality that go unnoticed by the general public. Exact figures on the number of individuals with disabilities killed by police officers are difficult to ascertain. This is because there is no legal requirement for authorities to collect or report data on this subject. However, based on media coverage and first-hand accounts, studies estimate that between 27% and 81% of individuals killed by police are disabled.
To understand why individuals with disabilities are at an increased risk of being injured or killed by police officers, we must look at policing methods, prejudice, and the lack of adequate medical services.
It may be officers’ tendency to act with aggression that is most problematic. Though efforts have recently been made to promote alternative methods of handling confrontations between members of the police force and civilians, officers are still likely to deploy the ‘Command and Control’ method of policing. This method involves officers attempting to gain control of a situation quickly by loudly issuing commands and exerting force, including the use of guns, tasers, and batons, in order to bring suspects under physical control. For many individuals with disabilities, this method is dangerously unsuitable for their needs.
Of course, there is a reason why many officers use these tactics. There exists a culture of fear among police forces about the possibility of encountering armed civilians in the line of duty. This is partially due to the prevalence of firearms in the United States. But when it becomes clear that the civilian is not concealing a weapon, as was the case with Adam, officers do not necessarily redirect their efforts. They loudly issue commands and expect them to be followed quickly and accurately. This is unlikely to produce the desired result in people who have any disability that limits their understanding of spoken language or ability to process information.
As can be seen in the cases of Adam and Robert Ethan, using physical force is not only dangerous, it exacerbates an already high-stress situation and can cause people with sensory issues or delusions to panic and become less responsive. The solution is proper training. Police officers need to be equipped with alternative methods of gaining control of situations that do not harm or put at risk people with disabilities. These methods include crisis intervention and de-escalation tools such as calm communication, collaboration with mental health resources, physical containment from a distance, and patience.
In addition to learning these alternative police methods, individuals need to address underlying prejudices. Like the rest of society, police officers often suffer from a troubling lack of understanding when it comes to people with disabilities. This lack of understanding may lead them to view individuals with intellectual and mental disabilities as inherently dangerous. This thinking has been fed by decades of institutional bias and misinformation, which may explain why officers persist in this belief even when no danger is present, as was the case of Adam.
When officers attend scenes without the help of properly trained medical professionals, the result can be a damaging prison sentence, injury, or even death.
Adam was naked and clearly unarmed. His only act of “aggression” was to splash water at a police officer. Yet, in the recording, the officer can clearly be heard saying: “I need to make sure you’re OK but I need to make sure I’m OK as well.” Nothing in the recording indicates that the officer was in any danger, yet he saw Adam as dangerous. Only proper training and a societal shift in attitude will dispel this fear.
Often, the disabled individuals harmed by officers would be better served by medical professionals. Family members or concerned civilians may call the police because they are deeply concerned about a person and have nowhere else to turn, or because they believe that person might be a risk to others. In all of these cases, it is care, not policing, that the person needs. When officers attend scenes without the help of properly trained medical professionals, the result can be a damaging prison sentence, injury, or even death.
An increased infrastructure of medical and social care, both before crisis point and in conjunction with police efforts would most benefit the individuals at risk of police violence. Had officers been accompanied by trained medical professionals when attending Adam, Madgiel, Robert Ethan, or the countless other individuals with similar stories, there may have been a non-violent outcome.
Race, class, and LGBTQ status can put disabled individuals at further risk. Again, we are hampered by a lack of official police statistics because many departments are resistant to tracking incidents, but it is fair to assume, for example, that those who are both disabled and African American are exposed to greater risk, given the latter’s increased exposure in the general population. Similarly, those living in low-income areas are likely to be at a higher risk than individuals from middle-class neighborhoods. These disparities are partially due to the increased level of policing in low-income areas, often in the inner city and populated by people of color.
Class, race, and LGBTQ status can also increase the likelihood of a person being debilitated or disabled by authorities of the law, which is another, less explored, vector of police violence and disability. Many individuals have been permanently injured by police encounters, and there is mounting evidence of mental health problems brought on by fear of racism and interactions with the police. These realities reinforce the urgency of a societal shift in attitudes, services, and policing. It is past time to change the story of police brutality, debility, and disability.