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After Alfred Olango, some say it’s time to bring mental health into the policing debate

By Aaron Morrison,

Brian Hullaby is a 35-year-old comic book reviewer living in New York City. At first glance, no one would know that he’s an adult with high-functioning autism, he says.

Alfred Olango

That’s why reports of Tuesday’s fatal police shooting of unarmed black man Alfred Olango, described by family as “mentally ill,” moved Hullaby to tweet out some perspective the next morning.

“First, as a black man, I know that I’m seen as a threat to a lot of people.” Hullaby said in a Wednesday interview. While autism spectrum disorders do not necessarily fall under the “mental illness” umbrella, Hullaby explained how his own condition makes it difficult for him to distinguish forcefully shouted commands versus calmly stated requests. As such, Hullaby said he worries of an increased danger becoming a victim of police brutality.

“Over the last two years, I’ve been a little more aware of the possibility that the police can misunderstand me or I can misunderstand them,” he said.

Authorities have said Olango, who was killed by police in El Cajon, California, did not respond to repeated commands from officers. It’s not known whether the officers had been trained to de-escalate in encounters with people with disabilities. In general, lack of training, coupled with overall stigma around mental illness and other disabilities, has contributed to what experts have called an epidemic of preventable police violence against people with disabilities.

“They almost happen on a weekly basis,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Boston-based the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports disability advocacy, said in an interview Wednesday. “What we see, in tragedy after tragedy, is situations that could be de-escalated. I understand how difficult the job of the policeman and policewoman is, but sometimes people with a disability may react differently when they are confronted by someone who is an authority figure.”

Such reactions can range from an individual pacing back and forth despite police instruction to stand still, to walking away from police, after being told to approach, Ruderman said.

Disabled individuals make up anywhere from a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers in the U.S., according to the Ruderman Foundation. In a report published in March, experts asserted that media outlets routinely fail to report if disability was a factor in use-of-force cases, whether or not the use of force was deemed illegal or within police policy.



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