Testimony to the 21st Century Policing Task Force

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The following testimony was given to the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing on February 4th, 2015 by ASAN President Ari Ne’eman

Members of the Task Force,

Thank you for inviting us to provide feedback to you today. On behalf of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the country’s leading national advocacy organization run by and for Autistic Americans, I’d like to commend you for your efforts to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust and strong, collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect.

Recent events have highlighted the importance of addressing law enforcement interactions with people with disabilities across the lifespan. All too often, people with disabilities experience significant access barriers interfacing with law enforcement due to misunderstandings or inaccessible communication styles. Such barriers can prevent people with disabilities from reporting crimes, serving as witnesses or receiving due process when accused of a crime.

Cases like Steven Eugene Washington, an autistic African-American 27-year old shot by the LAPD, or Ethan Saylor, asphyxiated by law enforcement as a result of not leaving a movie theatre, demonstrate the concerns facing people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in interactions with law enforcement officials. Not only is additional training required for law enforcement officers on identifying and responding appropriately to the needs of people with disabilities, real accountability is necessary to ensure that where law enforcement acts irresponsibly or outside the scope of established practice, appropriate disciplinary action is taken, including consideration of criminal prosecution where death or serious injury occurs as a result.

At the same time, people with disabilities often experience challenging interactions with law enforcement in other contexts as well. Youth with disabilities are more likely than youth without to fall into the school to prison pipeline, in part because of schools’ increasing reliance on law enforcement and school resource officers to address issues of school discipline or behavior that are inappropriate to address in the criminal context. Our police force suffers when we ask it to perform tasks outside its expertise. Police officers are not educators or mental heath professionals and should not be asked to serve as such in our nation’s public schools. We recommend significant additional scrutiny be placed on the continued presence of school resource officers and recommend against efforts to expand school resource officer presence at this time.

Law enforcement serves a valuable and necessary role in our society. All Americans should be able to rely on their police force for protection and respectful service to their community. As demonstrated by recent events, people with disabilities – along with other marginalized groups, such as people of color – face significant barriers that must be addressed to allow us to fully benefit from police protection. We urge you to incorporate these issues in a meaningful way in your analysis. Thank you for your time and consideration.