Media Missing the Story: Half of All Recent High Profile Police-Related Killings Are People with Disabilities

Media Missing the Story: Half of All Recent High Profile Police-Related Killings Are People with Disabilities

March 8, 2016 / 0 Comments 0 Comments

The Ruderman Family Foundation released the first Ruderman White Paper today – a groundbreaking, comprehensive study on the topic of police-related violence and media coverage in cases involving a person with a disability – which shockingly reveals that up to half of all people killed by police in the United States are disabled, and that almost all well-known cases of police brutality involve a person with a disability. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated.

However, perhaps more shocking is the prevalence of disabilities in these encounters not being accurately or commonly reported. The report, co-authored by professor David M. Perry and award-winning disability activist Lawrence Carter-Long, unveils that media coverage of police violence fails to recognize or report the disability element when Americans are injured or killed by law enforcement, resulting in their stories being segregated from the issue in the media. This report examines the past three years of media coverage relating to police violence and disability, reviewing eight individual cases against people with disabilities since the death of a young man with Down syndrome named Ethan Saylor in January 2013.

In the vast majority of cases within this timeframe, the research reveals the following patterns in the overall data:

  • Disability goes unmentioned or is listed as an attribute without context
  • An impairment is used to evoke pity or sympathy for the victim
  • A medical condition or “mental illness” is used to blame victims for their deaths
  • An estimated 80% of all cases that involve disability are categorized as “mental illness”
  • In rare instances, where disabilities are used as reason for intersecting forces that lead to dangerous use-of-force incidents, better models for policing in the future are suggested

For a searchable database of all 2013-2015 news coverage of police violence involving persons with disabilities, click here.

“This White Paper reveals that people with disabilities are senselessly being subjected to a disproportionate use of force by our police and many of these encounters are leading to unnecessary deaths. Police forces need better practices, policies and procedures when interacting with people with disabilities so that harm by our law enforcement authorities is prevented,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “Training is a necessary first step. Reforming the system follows closely behind. The rights of people with disabilities must be respected just like any other American citizen.”


PDF version available for download here

Text Only version available for download here



So how often do American police use force against disabled civilians? The problem is we do not know. No one knows because we lack comprehensive data, and currently there is no legal requirement for local, state or federal law enforcement agencies to aggregate or collect the number, type, and result of violent incidents that occur between police officers and disabled people. From a purely practical standpoint, those who seek to track, monitor and/or analyze trends related to police violence and disability are limited to collecting the data themselves from print and online media coverage.

When we leave disability out of the conversation or only consider it as an individual medical problem, we miss the ways in which disability intersects with other factors that often lead to police violence. Conversely, when we include disability at the intersection of parallel social issues, we come to understand the issues better, and new solutions emerge. Disability intersects with other factors such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, to magnify degrees of marginalization and increase the risk of violence. When the media ignores or mishandles a major factor, as we contend they generally do with disability, it becomes harder to effect change.


The Ruderman White Paper making headlines: 

WBEZ 91.5 Chicago: Listen to Ruderman White Paper Author David M. Perry, PhD Discuss Disability and Police-Related Violence

New York Daily News: The Disabled are at Higher Risk of Being Killed by Police

About the author

Justin Ellis is the Social Media Coordinator of the Ruderman Family Foundation who was first connected to the issue of disability through his sister, an award-winning special education teacher. Outside the Foundation he is an avid lover of Middle Eastern history and communication psychology.

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