Police interaction with the disabled

‘As of now, anything that police categorize as abnormal is automatically considered dangerous, and that’s not always the case’

Illustrative (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
'Why couldn’t they just have shot him in the leg? We’re suffering so much from this tragedy,” laments Khairi al-Halak, father of Iyad al-Halak, the young autistic Arab man shot by Border Police a few weeks ago as he made his way to Jerusalem’s Elwyn school for children and adults with disabilities. 
Police thought Halak was armed, so when he failed to heed their calls to halt, they began chasing him. The young man hid in a trash room nearby – where he was killed, even though he was unarmed.
“Nobody can feel my pain. Iyad was 32, but in his mind, he was like a seven-year-old boy,” explains Khairi. “He was on the autism spectrum. His body was aging, but his brain was not. He was a wonderful, sweet boy who was always helping people. Everyone in the neighborhood loved him and is crying over his death.
“We were always watching out for him, supporting him. On the day he was killed, he’d been walking to school with his gloves and mask on. I can’t even begin to tell you how angry I am that they killed him. And every Palestinian is angry along with me.”
Khairi continues: “Couldn’t they just have shot him in the leg? They didn’t have to shoot him to death. He had special needs and that’s why he couldn’t express himself and explain his actions. He was terrified of loud noises. When he hears noise, he runs away. That’s why he was killed.
“We’re extremely angry at the Border Police. They considered his actions suspicious and they just shot him right away even though he wasn’t a terrorist. They should figure out who the person is first before they shoot them.”
Following the incident, the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights sent a letter to the Homeland Security, Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services deparments, condemning the killing of mentally ill and/or special-needs persons by security forces.
Another similar incident mentioned in the letter concerned Shirel Habura, 30, who suffered from mental illness. He was shot to death by a policeman after Habura attacked him with a knife next to his house in Rosh Ha’ayin on April 30.
“And there are many more such killings of people with special needs by security forces,” the letter continues. “We understand that the security forces need to protect themselves, but this still does not justify using excessive force that is obviously much more than is needed to overcome a person. Too many times these incidents end with the special-needs person being killed.
“Because the reactions of people with disabilities are not normal, they are automatically considered dangerous. We believe that if security personnel are given the tools to deal with conflicts, they can change their behavior and learn how to deal better with these tricky situations.”
“There’s no doubt that police need to consider their actions when they’re dealing with people with special needs,” says Sapir Habura, Shirel’s brother. “In our case, we informed the police that Shirel was dangerous, but our story still didn’t need to have such a tragic ending. The police need to change their procedure in dealing with people with special needs. Our family is experiencing so much pain. I think about Shirel all the time.
Iyad al-Halak, who was killed by Border Police a few weeks agoIyad al-Halak, who was killed by Border Police a few weeks ago
“Within one month, three families lost loved ones who were a little different from most people. This should be a red light that something’s wrong, but the country always backs up the policemen. Police officers need to be taught how to handle these unique circumstances calmly instead of freaking out and overreacting.”
“IN LIGHT of these cases, and in an effort to prevent the next encounter between the police and people with disabilities from ending in death, we are calling for the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee between the Health, Welfare  and Homeland Security ministries, which will examine the deficiencies in the perception and organizational culture that enable using killing as the first means of protection. We are calling for the establishment of a clear procedure for conduct when encountering a person who suffers from mental illness or other disabilities,” says Lital Grossman, director of the Israeli residents department of Physicians for Human Rights.
But in most situations, security forces don’t have a way of knowing that the person in question has disabilities.
“The reason this is currently not possible is the speed of response, which is often lethal. We definitely believe that security forces need to protect themselves and to do everything in their power to reduce the amount of physical harm. We also believe that security forces need to acquire the necessary tools, to learn how to identify alternative options of response. They don’t always need to respond with live fire. For example, they could use a taser gun, which does help paralyze a suspect and give security forces a moment to stop and think about how they should proceed with the arrest.
“I do not pretend to know what exactly happened in these incidents, I’m not connected to the Police Investigations Unit, but I am extremely concerned. I’m thinking ahead to the next incident in which a person with special needs – Jewish or Arab – gets killed by security forces. I don’t want these events to end in death each time. Our goal is for the inter-ministerial committee to examine why the first course of action security forces used in all three of these instances was to open fire, which almost always ends with fatalities. We believe that a procedure should be introduced that could assist security forces in dealing with encounters with people who have disabilities.
“As of now, anything that police categorize as abnormal is automatically considered dangerous, and that’s not always the case.”
What would you suggest instead?
“Police need to undergo special training in which they meet face-to-face with people with disabilities. This would help them understand their reality better, enable them to identify characteristics and learn how to react in these situations. Obviously, we do not want security forces to be harmed, but there are other ways.”
“The recent incidents have brought to light a problem we have been avoiding dealing with: The forceful way law enforcement deals with situations involving people with disabilities,” states Shira Ruderman, CEO of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which promotes the integration of people with disabilities in Israeli society. In recent years, the foundation has been actively working with the Israel Police in an effort to reduce violence against people with disabilities. A relevant study complied by Ruderman about police enforcement in the US claims that “30% to 50% of the deaths that were covered by American media sources involved people with disabilities. The American media focuses on race and ethnic background, but the story goes even deeper than that. These victims paid with their lives because policemen had not received any training regarding how to deal with people with disabilities.”
The solution for dealing with these types of situations in the future, Ruderman explains, is for changes to be made across the board, starting with requiring that all police officers undergo professional training, receive reliable information in real time from welfare or health officials, and having access to a psychiatrist in emergency situations.
“These measures will help save people’s lives,” Ruderman continues.
“We cannot just accept that the police will keep killing people with disabilities and say there’s nothing we can do about it. We must offer security forces the tools to handle these complex situations with individuals who have mental illness or psychological disabilities that prevent them from reacting in ways that we consider normative. The good news is Israel Police believes this is an extremely important issu, and is an active partner, alongside the Ruderman Foundation and Joint Israel, in a program to train police cadets and teach them to think creatively in how to find solutions to deal with these situations, and get rid of stigmas about people with disabilities.
ARYEH AMIT, head of the operations division and commander of the Israel Police Jerusalem District. ARYEH AMIT, head of the operations division and commander of the Israel Police Jerusalem District.
“Nonetheless, we have a great amount of work to do before we can feel that there has been an improvement in this area.”
“When soldiers or police officers find themselves in a difficult situation in which they need to make immediate decisions, they don’t have time to think about the person who is putting themselves or others in danger,” explains Aryeh Amit, head of the operations division and commander of the Israel Police Jerusalem District.
Presenting the other side, he stressed, “It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman, a Jew or Arab, a university professor or a person with special needs. There’s no way for a soldier or police officer to ascertain any of this information in those first few seconds, and anyway, these details are irrelevant. The only thing they need to figure out in the moment is whether their or someone else’s life is in danger. 
“Tell me, what kind of tool exactly could they use to decipher whether the person in front of them has special needs? It’s absurd to ask them to put themselves and others in danger so that they can take the time to figure out if the person in front of them has special needs or not. It’s a matter of life or death. Does it matter if the person holding the submachine gun aimed at them has special needs or not? We all agree that it makes no difference.”
Israel Police responded with the following comment:
“With great professionalism, dedication, sensitivity and in a lawful manner, Israel Police handles thousands of incidents every year in which people with special needs are involved. A few individual and exceptional cases seem not to have been handled according to procedure, and they are investigated thoroughly. In some of the cases, it was not known to the police officers that the suspect had special needs, and in other cases, the officers’ lives were at stake, and they acted in a way to preserve their and others’ lives.
“It should be duly noted that Israel Police is in continuous contact with the welfare agencies for the purpose of improving the handling of cases involving people with disabilities. Moreover, every year dozens of police officers undergo advanced training to learn how to specifically handle people with disabilities, whether as suspects or as victims of crime. In addition, the Israel Police carries out a range of creative activities for children and youth with special needs throughout the year.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.