Invisible Disability, Policing & Tracking as a De-escalation Tactic

In the last couple of days, I’ve been seeing more and more discourse on using databases and tracking as a supposed tool to help police officers de-escalate situations involving people with invisible disabilities.

The first article I saw was from Fox and was a mixture of poor journalism and inconsistent framing. I took to Twitter to voice some of my confusion around the consistent framing of these databases as a tool for parents and caregivers despite only talking to an actually autistic woman who used the technology herself independent of a third-party caregiver. That was more a commentary on how stories that primarily impact disabled people continue to centre nondisabled people even when the content of the article does not warrant that centring. I however, want to look at the actual issue being addressed in the article.

I did briefly mention on Twitter that the Fox article does not look critically at the issue at all. It does not question the fact that the service will eventually cost money. Meaning that assuming the initiative works (and that’s a questionable assumption) people have to pay to have their disabilities considered by police. It puts an additional price on safety to be borne by a marginalized group that is disproportionately poor.

The article also doesn’t in any way question whether this initiative will actually help police de-escalate situations involving disabled people without resorting to violence. There are far too many examples of disabled people killed or injured by police even in situations where the police knew they were disabled and even situations where the police were specifically called to assist with a mental health crisis.

It is also important to note that all of the above examples involve people who are multiply marginalized by the intersection of disability with race or gender identity. So it is also worth asking who will these programs actually work for?

Neither the Fox article or a Pioneer Press article about the initiative really engage with that reality. Both articles re specifically about a program called VITAL in which disabled people carry a card which signals an app on a police offer’s cell phone when they are in proximity.

This by itself is alarming in that police will potentially just be informed that there are invisibly disabled people nearby and offer up medical information on those individuals whether they are in distress or not. As the latter article notes,

“Users with disabilities pay between $9 and $15 for the beacon and an additional $9.95 per month for the application — a small fee to pay for the freedom it provides, according to Nelson. She’s had her beacon since February and said it’s “pinged” her information to officers more than 50 times.”

That distresses me. Nelson and I share a diagnosis and I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of police being routinely informed of my proximity just because I decided to exist in public space. It seems like a recipe for potentially increasing police interactions rather than minimizing necessary ones.

The piece continues by profiling another user of the app,

“Wilford’s 14-year-old autistic son was one of the first people to use the app. Wilford said officers have used the information available 10 times since she downloaded the app.”

I have questions.

Was that child having that regular of contact with police prior to using the app?

This is a child of colour. Has that impacted how he has had 10 actual uses of the app while Nelson whose race is not apparent has had (according to the Fox article, she was quoted in both) only one but 50 proximity notifications sent to police?

Did all of those incidences actually warrant police accessing that information?

The article does not answer them and thus reinforces my concerns that technology like this might increase unnecessary police contact with disabled people by effectively labelling them as potential crises and placing what amounts to tracking devices on them.

Since this story has been getting attention, I have seen other disabled people voice similar concerns. Creating a database for a marginalized population (even if it is currently opt-in) should be a red flag.

Why do police need an app to remind them of de-escalation techniques?

Why is the burden on disabled people to try and inform police not only that they are disabled but give them a step by step guide on how to de-escalate the situation if they are found in crisis?

If police resort to force with a disabled person not registered will they be blamed for failing to inform police that they are disabled?

If the listed de-escalation tactics of someone registered don’t work and police resort to violence, will the disabled person be blamed?

Why is the onus on disabled people and not on police to incorporate de-escalation tactics as a natural part of policing?

So many necessary questions without answers and the safety of disabled people are at stake so why are only disabled people asking them?

 

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