Who’s the Witness

Silver and gold police badge with eagle at the top with the words police, protect and serve in all caps on a white background

“I’ll be fucked if I get shot in front of you though.”

 “What are you talking about?”

 “Who’s the witness?”

At night the front of the police car can be seen, doors open, with sirens flashing
The bass gradually slows, the beat diminishing as the song reaches its climax – forcing my brother and I to pay more attention to the rapid words. The words “siren” and “police” remind me of a conversation that I had with a friend earlier that day.

I was taking my service animal out to use the bathroom when the police sirens could be heard a few blocks away. The closer they got, the louder they were. Pressing my phone closer to my ear, my friend joked, “You know you’re in Pine Hills when you hear sirens a couple times a day.” I laughed. It’s the truth; it would be odd if I went to bed and didn’t hear the sirens come past my house a few times before I fell asleep. An insidious lullaby – who are the sirens supposed to bring peace to?

Telling this conversation to my youngest brother, he said – with more truth than joke – “I’ll be fucked if I were shot in front of you though.”

Surprised, I asked why. Was it because he knows my aversion to guns? Is it because I made it clear that if there were a mass shooter (police officer or any white man, take your pick), my ass is out – they’ll just have to take one for the team; I am a queen at tripping people and smacking ankles out of the way with my cane, after all. His response took me a back and reminded me that I am not the only one in the family with dark humor.

“Who would be the witness?”

Last year, I called in a domestic violence with a weapon – gun – to the police. I was the only disabled one there, the rest were able-bodied. The police made it very clear how serious they took the situation when they came; searched everyone – but me – for weapons, asked everyone – but me – about what happened, took everyone’s – but my – statement, and made sure everyone – but me – were alright.

“Don’t you want to search me?”

Cop one: “Oh no honey, you’re fine.”

“I’m the one who called it in; I was in the house, D- is actually wrong about one thing, you see, what happened was…”

Cop two: “Alright. Is this true?” Stares at E- for conformation of my version of events.

                “Don’t you want me to write a statement?”

Cop two: “That’s quite alright. Thank you so much for your help. Why won’t you go inside.”

                Patronize. Disbelieve. Dismissive.

I am well aware that my encounter with the police last year went very, very well and there were a few reasons that made it so:

  • I am blind – and the cops were confident in their knowledge that I was blind with no other disabilities. Blindness is something that society fears, but also finds fascinating and is also familiar
  • When I knew the police arrived, I had two choices: either leave my cane inside – and risk being considered drunk or on drugs when I eventually stumbled in the unfamiliar area – or I bring my cane and hope that they do not consider it a weapon. I chose to bring my cane with me and hold it loosely at my side. I announced – clearly and loudly – that I am blind. I also repeated this on the phone with the operator.
  • I am short. Standing at four feet ten inches, I am automatically considered a non-threat.
  • I am a woman. Women are more likely to be dismissed as a threat and receive thoughts of sympathy rather than danger.
  • I am light-skinned. The police do have a bias towards POC (people of color); the darker your skin is, the more threat you will be considered.

If I were darker, my disability not identifiable or was something other than blindness, and taller, I’m sure my experience with the cops wouldn’t have been so great.

Negative stereotypes and attitudes have – and continue to, keep PWDs (people with disabilities) back – in all areas of life: from employment, housing, education, health care, immigration status, etc. Is there any surprise that when it comes to social justice, we would have a hard time for equality?

Being a light-skinned, short woman protected me from suspicion or police violence. Being blind did contribute to me not being taken seriously, my recounting of my experience being called into question, and me being dismissed from the area. As I’ve said above, this experience was a good one. It could have ended in my death.

Pictured from the knees up, Charleena Lyles can be sseen standing in front of a house wearing a bright black and yellow top with matching earrings, smiling at the camera with one hand on her hip. In the far background, we see a small child standing on a stoop. This picture was found at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/22/police-killings-disabled-black-people-mental-illness

It is not a surprise that the police are ignorant when it comes to PWDs: how to recognize and interact with us; the difference between stereotype and reality.

It isn’t only disabled stereotypes holding us back. For most of us, disability only represents a part of us: people often forget that we are intersectional; stereotypes on race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion can all come into play in our everyday lives.

This is evident when it comes to being black and disabled: labeled monster twice over; once for your skin and once for your disability – either way, you are a danger and need to be taken down.

Disabled people not taken seriously when reporting a crime, disabled people considered dangerous and a threat, and disabled peoples experiences absent when police brutality is talked about and researched. The police are part of society and they bring their prejudice with them when they go to work. Society treats disabled people as nonexistent, unintelligent, or dangerous.

The training police receive on PWDs is practically nonexistent and do to that, it shows just how minor they consider us and our problems. This leads to impatience, misunderstandings, then violent reactions. The police are also not held to accountability, which dissolves them from guilt and responsibility or change in the system, which allows this cycle to start over and over again. What can we do to fix this?

We – society – need to consider disabled people as human and treated as human. Once that happens, we need to hold police to accountability with true and harsh consequences when avoidable mistakes are made. Along with that, we need to make sure that research on police brutality, policies against police brutality, and protests police brutality are inclusive; this cannot be said enough: people with disabilities need to be present, we need to have a voice in the conversation, our experiences need to be told and valued just as much as others.

We see the backs of two white male cops pointing guns at a black man in a wheelchair. They are all in the street.

One thought on “Who’s the Witness

  1. Would love to read any personal experiences with the police from those with disabilities. Also: if anyone has any recommendations for further reading, that would be great!

    Like

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