A 2016 study reports that up to half of those killed by law enforcement officers are disabled. Also consider that 10% of all calls to police involve someone suffering a mental health crisis, and that 1 in 4 police shootings involve individuals struggling with mental illness. These statistics became all too real for my own family.

In 2019, in Queens, New York, a home health aide called the police when my autistic cousin tried to position his mother’s feet in a certain way. His mother, also my cousin, assured the aide that her son posed no threat—the act of making sure his mother’s feet were “just right” was a way to bring him comfort while the new health aide visited them.

Yet 10 police officers arrived—some carrying riot shields— to help protect a mother who perceived no threat from her own son. My cousin, an 18-year-old Black man, mostly nonverbal, and with the intellect of a small child, was confused when the police barged into his house.

In his fear, he resisted their approach before they handcuffed him and placed him in the back of an ambulance, where he was cuffed to the rail of the gurney and strapped with ties. The police escalated an autistic man’s need to find comfort in his own home, forcibly restrained him, and removed him from his mother and his residence.

If we accept that “neurodivergent” is a label used to describe someone who processes information in a unique or atypical way, we must also accept that two parties processing information in different ways can open the door to misunderstandings and confusion. But when armed police are involved, that confusion can quickly turn violent. Why do we continue to let police-related confusion harm some of the most vulnerable members of society?

On a gray autumn afternoon in Queens, my cousin asked a health aide not to call 911. But the aide believed she was doing the right thing, perhaps because she believed there were no other options.

But some cities are exploring non-police options and testing ways to divert mental health crises away from 911 calls. In Denver, Colorado, city authorities are dispatching mental health teams, instead of armed police officers, to certain 911 emergency calls.

Read the full article about fatal police interactions by Lise Ragbir at YES! Magazine.