For the second time in the past three years, the issue of police abuse of disabled people has grabbed the headlines.
The recent publicity about a three year old case in which a young man suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury was severely beaten by police officers because he did not obey their commands quickly enough has been broadcast over television stations as well as the newspapers. About two weeks following that incident, a mentally disabled man, who had never had an involvement with the police in his life, was similarly beaten when he was too slow in responding to a command to button his jacket while standing on a street corner.
Both incidents were videotaped and broadcast nationally.
On May 29, 2009, Ronnie Holloway was simply walking through his home neighbourhood in Passaic, New Jersey. A surveillance video tape showed Holloway standing outside Lawrence’s Bar and Grill. A police car pulled up and Holloway was asked by a female officer to zip up his sweatshirt. Holloway slowly complied, yet he was subject to a savage beating by Officer John Rios III with fists and a police baton, before being thrown into a police car and taken into custody.
Ronnie Holloway spent the night in a jail cell, with no medical attention paid to his injuries. Worse still, a short list of offenses were fabricated and levied against the disabled adult in order to justify the arrest.
The world would have learned little more about this had it not been discovered that a surveillance video tape from a camera outside Lawrence’s Bar and Grill had recorded the entire incident. Holloway was simply standing on the street corner, committed no evident crime, and did not resist arrest. Clearly, there appeared to be no justification for the policeman’s actions.
Ronnie Holloway did not have a criminal record and was not a threat to society. He was a citizen with a significant disability who became an assault victim. The very people who were sworn to protect him became his oppressors. Perhaps more significant than the beating itself is the action of fabricating charges against Holloway, including intent to purchase drugs and resisting arrest. This, in itself, was a serious criminal action, and the officer who helped to facilitate the fabrication was terminated.
The issue of police abuse of those with mentally disabling conditions came to light, once again, when a similar case resurfaced
On May 16, 2009, New Jersey State Troopers were searching for two burglary suspects and stopped a vehicle which turned out to be the wrong car. Twenty-one-year-old James Bayless was sitting in the passenger side of the vehicle when he was ordered to step out of the car. As a Traumatic Brain Injury patient, his response was delayed and the officer deemed it as much too slow. An eyewitness stated that she saw Bayless, who was now handcuffed, dragged out of the vehicle by two officers, thrown to the ground and punched in the face repeatedly by the officers.
The two cases would have received little scrutiny had they not been videotaped. Legislators, like Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, would like to take action to prevent such events from happening in the future.
Interestingly, a few years ago former Assemblyman Fred Scalera sponsored a bill that would require first responders to be trained to deal with people with mental and behavioural disorders. Often, such individuals have communication deficits that make it difficult to respond to verbal commands. In the case of Bayliss and Holloway, they were punished because of their disabilities.
Tragically, being disabled may be a punishable offense in New Jersey!