Oct 29, 2019, 10:32am
Michael Bernick Contributor
I write about emerging employment structures, policy and law.
(Part of a series of new forms of employment and social inclusion for adults with autism and other developmental differences.)
CORONA, CA - JUNE 19: Kenneth French, top, with his parents Paola French and Russell French in a ... [+]MEDIANEWS GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES
On Sunday afternoon, June 14, 2019, at a crowded Costco store in Corona, California, an off-duty policy officer, Salvador Sanchez, shot and killed Kenneth French, a 32 year old man who was non-verbal and described by family as severely developmentally disabled. According to witnesses, French had become agitated and pushed Sanchez to the ground, while they both were in line for food samples. Until the shooting, French and Sanchez had never met.
An account of the shooting appeared in the Los Angeles Times the next day and in several other local newspapers. However, media interest was short-lived and within a short time the story went dark. The Riverside County District Attorney, Mike Hestrin, was said to be investigating, as was the Los Angeles City Police Department, Sanchez's employer. The case reappeared on September 25, when Hestrin announced that he would not bring any criminal charges against Sanchez. Then again it disappeared from public view.
But it did not disappear entirely. The first media notice in June moved rapidly around the autism and mental health blogosphere in California. "Kenneth French could have been my son", wrote one parent. Another volunteered, "My son engages in unusual behaviors, sometimes touching or bumping into others. I worry all the time that these interactions could turn violent." And a third added, "Shoving someone should not be met with immediate shooting, especially by a trained police officer."
Despite the alarm, there was agreement there should be no rush to judgement. In other high profile police shooting cases, the initial reports have turned out to be inaccurate. Additional information might cast the shooting in a far different light.
However, as more facts came out, the shooting became less defensible, not more. After French had pushed Sanchez to the ground, French's parents immediately tried to intervene and explain their son's disability. Sanchez fired not once, but 10 shots that only killed Kenneth, but also severely wounded both parents. Less than 5 seconds elapsed between the initial push and Sanchez opening fire. The Frenches had their backs to Officer Sanchez when he shot. "If anyone else shot three people in the back from a distance, they would have been arrested," Dale Galipo, attorney for the French family told the Los Angeles Times. "If it was anyone other than a police officer, it would have been prosecuted."
What to make of the shooting? The media have moved on, as has the District Attorney and local elected officials. Will this shooting follow the trajectory of other police shootings of adults with developmental differences?
The Costco shooting is latest of a number of police shootings of men with developmental disabilities, in recent years, including in Chicago, and in North Miami. These shootings also received initial media attention, but then quickly faded from view. The police officer in Miami was convicted of negligence, a misdemeanor, while the police officer in Chicago was given a six-month suspension.
This time will be different, California's disability activists have promised over the month since Estrin's decision. The Facebook page of the Autism Society-Inland Empire, an area that includes San Bernardino and Riverside counties, filled with posts on the shooting: anger and incredulity at the failure to bring charges, and determination that Officer Sanchez be held accountable. Beth Burt, Executive Director of the Inland Empire Society and President of the Autism Society statewide, explained "We conduct regular surveys of our families on how we can best serve them. In all, safety is the top priority: safety in interactions outside the home and safety in police relations. The failure to bring charges stunned a lot of our families."
And beyond the Inland Empire, other autism and disability groups in California have weighed in. Teresa Anderson, public policy director of The Arc of California, posted a call for action on the shooting. She, Ms. Burt, and several other disability community members have launched a statewide campaign to let the French family know that they are not alone, to continue calls for accountability, and most broadly to try changing the ways that law enforcement interacts with adults with disabilities in California.
It is this broader goal of law enforcement policies going forward that is a priority of advocates. Currently, more than twenty states require some police training in response techniques for incidents involving adults with mental illness issues and/or intellectual and developmental disabilities. Maryland was one of the first in 2014 to do so, following the death while in police custody of Ethan Saylor, a man with Down Syndrome. Other states have followed, including California which enacted legislation in 2015 requiring peace officer training to respond to people with mental illnesses who are in crisis-an effort spearheaded by the Sacramento-based Steinberg Institute on Mental Health.
Leigh Ann Davis directs The Arc's National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD), which has been at the center of the law enforcement-disability national movement. She explains, "It is critical to build strong linkages and channels of communication between law enforcement and the disability community, before a crisis occurs, so that the focus is on prevent ion first, then intervention if and when it is needed. If we wait until the intervention stage to start having these much-needed conversations about effective communication techniques or de-escalation strategies, it could be too late."
In 2015, NCCJD developed its signature training tool, Pathways to Justice, now being used by police departments throughout the nation: a community-based program building relationships between the criminal justice and disability communities, while providing officers and other criminal justice professionals training specific to developmental disabilities. As part of the training, a Disability Response Team model is used, which brings together law enforcement officers, disability advocates, victim advocates, attorneys and judges to brainstorm on how to effectively work with people with developmental disabilities and craft local strategies.
However, disability advocates emphasize there is a long way to go to an effective law enforcement-disability system. The current training programs are uneven in quality and seriousness. In many of these programs, disability and mental health is only a few hours in a wide-ranging crisis management curriculum. The subject of developmental disabilities is not a priority is not a priority; instructors are pulled in on an ad-hoc basis. The message often is: this is a topic we have to cover, but don't take that seriously.
Changing this outlook and the law enforcement-disability culture is tied to the goal of accountability. Following the shooting, Officer Sanchez's attorneys tried the usual script of shifting the blame to Kenneth French, for his unprovoked pushing. One of Sanchez's attorneys, David Winslow, first claimed Sanchez had blacked out after his fall-though Sanchez later shifted the story to claim he thought he'd been shot. Following the failure to bring charges, Sanchez's other attorney, Ira Salzman, told the press that his client had been vindicated, and that the shooting was just an unfortunate event. As long as there is no accountability, this narrative will continue of blaming the adult with a disability for strange or out-of-the-ordinary behaviors that are related to having a disability.
Further, a new narrative will need sustained grass-roots efforts. In past cases, it has been difficult to sustain such efforts given that many families in the disability community are stretched thin and have limited time and resources. Others are isolated by choice or inability to connect. Most of all, there is the basic strong support for law enforcement. The disabilities community depends on law enforcement to protect its members from others who would prey on them.
It's too early to tell, but this time may be a little different. In the first week of October, District Attorney Hestrin, who had sought to be done with this case, found his office to be the subject of a protest by more than 50 Riverside residents. A letter to Hestrin, prepared by Ms. Burt, Ms. Anderson and other disability activists is now circulating among disability groups in the state, with more than forty groups and individuals signing on in the first 10 days.
Ms. Anderson and her family have a long history in California's disability community. She started 30 years ago as an aide in a day program, then as a group home worker, job coach, crisis and behavior intervention specialist, and most recently with The Arc and United Cerebral Palsy California Collaboration as an advocate. She's seen a lot, and believes this case cannot be swept under the rug. "We can and simply have to do a better job at ensuring the safety of our loved ones with intellectual and developmental disabilities when it comes to interactions with law enforcement."
I served as California labor department director from 1999-2004, and today am Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris and a Milken Institute Fellow. My newest book is The Autism Job Club, with Richard Holden (second edition, 2018).