Police Brutality: A (Speech) Disability Concern

out of focus image of a parked police car with blue lights on at nightContent Warning: This post discusses police brutality against disabled people. 

On January 26, 2023, police in Huntington Park, California, fatally shot a 36-year-old Black man and double amputee, Anthony Lowe. Police had been called because of allegations that Lowe had stabbed someone. Video footage of the incident shows Lowe “[outside of his wheelchair] hobbling on his two partially-amputated limbs with a knife in hand before he is shot by officers” nearly ten times

Similar scenarios play out too often across the United States when Black people are involved, especially those who are Black and disabled. A 2021 report published in The Lancet, which reviewed police-involved killings in the United States between 1980 and 2018, found that Black Americans were approximately 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. Police brutality against Black people is certainly not new

Available data about police-related deaths remains weak; over half of such deaths were either misclassified or unreported in the U.S. National Vital Statistics System, the government system from which The Lancet report’s data were pulled. A 2016 Ruderman Foundation report estimated that half of recent, high-profile killings by police involved victims who were disabled.

People who cannot use speech alone to be heard and understood are particularly vulnerable to police brutality, unjustified police killings, and official misconduct and mistreatment, especially if they are Black or brown. Because we live in a speech-dominant society, our inability to respond in ways that law enforcement expects is often misinterpreted as disorderly conduct. 

CommunicationFIRST remembers everyone who has been unjustly brutalized and killed by police; we will continue working to create a world where members of our community are treated with dignity, understanding, and respect, regardless of race and disability. For some recommendations and resources from the disability community, please see the Consortium of Constituents with Disabilities’ Statement on Reducing Police Responses to People with Disabilities. (And stay tuned for an announcement in the near future about our new Accessing Justice initiative.)


The following is a partial list of people with speech-related disabilities who have been killed or brutalized by police in the United States. (Please note that many of the linked news stories use terminology that may be offensive.)

  • Rajon Cherry (2021), a 21-year-old autistic man who does not use speech to communicate, was Tased several times by police when they thought the spoon he was holding was a weapon.
  • Aaron Vasquez (2021), a 17-year-old autistic teen who could not speak, was Tased 17 times by police in Pickens, South Carolina, after he was reported missing and found walking down a road wearing his pajamas.
  • Eric Parsa (2020), a 16-year-old nonspeaking autistic teenager, died after law enforcement held him in a prone restraint for 9 minutes in a parking lot in Metairie, Louisiana, while he was having a sensory meltdown. 
  • Kenneth French (2019), a 32-year-old man with developmental disabilities who did not use speech to be heard and understood, was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer at a Costco store in Corona, California.
  • Keith Lamont Scott (2016), a 43-year-old father of seven who had difficulty communicating due to a prior traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident, was shot and killed by police in the parking lot of his apartment complex while police were present to issue a warrant to someone else.
  • Paul Gianelos (2016), a 45-year-old nonspeaking autistic man, died after being restrained and injured by police when they found him after he wandered away from a park in northern Virginia.

The following are just some of the many other disabled people who have been killed or brutalized by police in the United States over the last eleven years:

  • Daniel Prude (2020), a 41-year-old man experiencing a mental health crisis in Rochester, New York, died after being handcuffed, hooded, and pinned to the ground by police officers.
  • Da’veon Cieslack (2018), a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy experiencing a mental health crisis, was handcuffed, punched, and pepper-sprayed by a police officer in Albion, Michigan.
  • Marcus-David Peters (2018), a 24-year-old biology teacher experiencing a mental health crisis, was shot and killed by a Richmond, Virginia police officer.
  • Deborah Danner (2016), a 66-year-old, schizophrenic woman in crisis, was fatally shot by New York City police in her bedroom.
  • Freddie Gray (2015), a 25-year-old man with a developmental disability, died from spinal cord injuries that occurred when he was in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Tanisha Anderson (2014), a 37-year-old Cleveland woman with heart disease and bipolar disorder, died after being physically restrained by police during a mental health crisis. 
  • Eric Garner (2014), a 43-year-old man with asthma, diabetes, and a heart condition, died after a New York City police officer placed him in a chokehold after he allegedly used tax stamps to sell cigarettes.
  • Barry Montgomery (2014), a 29-year-old man with Tourette syndrome and other developmental disabilities, was beaten by Los Angeles police officers after they urged him to leave a city park before the 10 p.m. closing time.
  • Ethan Saylor (2013), a 26-year-old man with Down Syndrome, died from asphyxia when police restrained him on the floor after he attempted to re-enter a movie theater without purchasing another ticket.

  • Stephon Edward Watts (2012), an autistic 15-year-old, was fatally shot by two Calumet City, Illinois police officers in his basement.