My absolute worst fear as the mother of children with disabilities

By Maggie Suter

“Please, not again.” That was my first thought when I read about the fatal shooting of an unarmed man with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) by an off-duty law enforcement officer in a Riverside County Costco last June. My second thought was, “this could have easily been my son.”

Kenneth French, a 32-year-old man with IDD, was shopping with his parents when he was shot ten times in the back by an off-duty police officer who was in the food tasting line. Officer Salvador Sanchez fired from a seated position 20 feet away. The officer has given multiple different accounts of what happened that morning.

Kenneth’s parents, also shot (but not killed) as they frantically tried to explain their son’s behavior, had little means of protecting him in a situation in which “shoot first, ask questions later” is all too common for people with IDD. It has been widely reported that Kenneth was non-verbal and a “gentle giant.” There were no words exchanged between him and Officer Sanchez.

As the mother of two teenage sons with IDD, this is my absolute worst fear. Travis is 15-years-old and has no outward signs of disability. My son William has Down syndrome and his disability is plainly visible. When William says or does the unexpected, he is given a good amount of grace from others.  Travis, at 6’3’ and 250 pounds, doesn’t get grace; he gets stared at, misunderstood, and often judged.  Like Kenneth French, he is more likely to be presumed threatening, and therefore joins a large and misunderstood segment of Americans who are at increased risk of police shooting simply because of their disabilities.

This story reminded me of Ethan Saylor, a 26 year-old man with Down syndrome who went to see the film Zero Dark Thirty at a theater in Frederick County, MD in 2013. He liked the movie so much that he wanted to stay and watch it again. When he refused to get up and buy another $12 ticket, three off-duty police officers moonlighting as security guards tackled him from his seat to the ground. He was heard screaming for his mother. Ethan died an hour later from “asphyxiation by homicide,” according to the medical examiner’s report. A grand jury failed to indict and the three deputies involved are back on the job.

According to The Arc, people with disabilities make up the single largest minority group in the United States, and officers who have the skill set to work with this population have a significant advantage over officers who do not. Officers may not realize just how common disability issues impact everyday society, and the more educated the officer is about disabilities in general, the more likely safe and positive outcomes will occur between law enforcement and people with disabilities. Training for law enforcement on Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities (IDD) is rare, and yet the need is rising. Imagine a member of the Deaf community not responding to an officer’s command. That person could easily be seen as uncooperative and defiant when the reality is they couldn’t hear! In Texas, organizations like The SAFE Alliance and The Arc of Texas have been working with law enforcement agencies to train officers in interacting with the IDD community.

I also see a lack of real empathy for others in general, but the pervasive lack of empathy for people with disabilities is one of the most serious challenges that we face as a society. Is this why there seems to be a trend of non-prosecution of the perpetrators of violence against the disabled? Are their lives somehow less valuable? So often, our children with disabilities are adorable when they’re young, but as adults they are considered frightening.

We will likely never know what really happened between Kenneth and the off-duty officer that day. Last week, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin decided not to bring charges against Sanchez after a grand jury didn’t find enough evidence to warrant criminal prosecution, so there will be no trial. But we can, and must, work together with law enforcement for education and policies that protect people with IDD. I hope we can do this in honor of Kenneth – and to protect Travis.

Maggie Suter is an educator and trainer on SAFE’s Disability Services team and Board member of The Arc of Texas. 

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