Disability advocates frustrated by lack of action

Disability advocates frustrated by lack of action

Despite a national outcry for change in the wake of George Floyd’s death, efforts toward law enforcement reform continue to hit roadblocks at the state and federal levels. Minnesota’s special legislative session ended June 20 with no movement on law enforcement reform, including crucial measures sought by disability advocacy groups. 

While people of color make up a disproportionate number of those involved in law enforcement lethal force incidents, statistics on people with disabilities vary by study. A Ruderman Family Foundation study estimates that people with disabilities make up one-third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. Other studies also top the 50 percent mark, which parallels the percentage Minnesota disability advocates cited during the regular and special legislative sessions. 

All studies point out that disability cuts across all racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

Hopes of passing federal legislation before the July 4 Congressional recess were fading as Access Press went to press. 

At the federal level, the House passed a series of reform measures June 25. But those measures faced challenges in the Senate, where Democrats earlier blocked debate on a Republican police reform bill. Democratic Senate leaders said the bill didn’t go far enough to address issues of racial inequality. Among the many issues in play included chokeholds and no-knock search warrants. 

Minnesota’s June special legislative session, which lasted for a week, ended with no movement on an array of law enforcement reform issues. The lack of action frustrated activists across the state, who were galvanized by issues of racial and social justice. The inaction is despite protests and pressure brought to bear since the death of Floyd on May 25 while in police custody. 

In a video seen around the world, an office is shown with his knee on Floyd’s neck, causing fatal injuries. Four officers have been criminally charged. 

The June special session hit a stalemate June 19 when the House and Senate couldn’t bridge their divide over reshaping policing. The Democratic-controlled Minnesota House passed a massive bill with many reform measures, including several proposals made by the Republican-controlled Senate. As lawmakers met in private, about 400 people held a Juneteenth demonstration outside the capitol. 

Gov Tim Walz called for legislators to bring him a law enforcement reform bill to sign on Juneteenth. The holiday typically commemorates Black emancipation but in 2020 turned into a day to call for law enforcement reforms and to honor Floyd’s memory. 

“We have to do something on police accountability and reform,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park). “The tragic murder of George Floyd on May 25 changed the entire legislative agenda. There is no way for us to look away from this injustice, and to not do the work that thousands of Minnesotans and millions of people around the world are demanding that governments take up.” 

Mental health advocacy groups sought an array of law enforcement and juvenile justice reforms, which were unveiled earlier this year at Mental Health Day on the Hill. People with a mental illness are much more likely to have encounters with the criminal justice system that can result in a dangerous encounter with the police, time in jail, or incarceration. Minnesota mental health advocacy groups worked during the regular and special sessions on issues including law enforcement departments’ documentation of training funds are used for crisis intervention, including what specific training they used and whether it was evidence-based. Money was sought for pilot projects for law enforcement agency to connect quickly with mobile crisis teams through tablets and telehealth services.911 operator training on mental health issues was also sought, along with many programs for mental health needs to be met when people are jailed. 

Another measure that stalled is very important to Minnesota’s autism community. The bill would have mandated specific training and set aside funding for law enforcement officers, to ensure safer interactions between people on the spectrum and officers. One of the bill’s champions is Rep. Mike Freiberg ( DFL-Golden Valley). Freiberg has a child on the autism spectrum and spoke out in interviews during the regular session about the bill’s importance. 

Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) has worked to get the legislation passed, so seeing it stall in both the regular and special sessions was a disappointment. AuSM already has provided training for officers in some Minnesota police departments, including St. Paul, Eagan, Brooklyn Park and Woodbury. 

Jillian Nelson, AuSM’s policy advocate and community resource staffer, said the bill had momentum during the regular session. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit “and everything just fell flat.” 

AuSM is pushing for comprehensive training on autism spectrum issues for law enforcement, so that officers can effectively engage with and support people with autism. The statewide mandatory training would have included stakeholder involvement. It would include training on how to respond to people with autism and de-escalate situations. 

“I’m hopeful the Senate and House will be able to come together to reach agreement on our legislation and other police reform measures,’ Nelson said. She is among many waiting for word on another special session this summer. 

Some police and sheriff’s departments have started providing stickers to be placed on homes, to indicate if a resident has a medical condition or a disability such as autism. But advocates contend that is a small step and many more changes are needed.