The Cult of Compliance and the Policing of the Norm

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If my children are autistic or mentally ill or both, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where their humanity is questioned every single day, or where police brutality based on their disability status could end their lives.

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

There are many problems with policing in the United States. The cult of compliance is a problem. The tyranny of the norm is a problem. Pseudoscience is a problem. The drug war and its benighted notions of addiction are a problem.

These problems are a recipe of terror for neurodivergent and disabled people.

We are weird. We are different. That shouldn’t be a crime, but in our #CultOfCompliance societies, being different will get you interrogated, beaten, jailed, and killed.

The receipts are endless.

CW: ableism, racism, abuse, police violence

Just over four years ago, I entered the tube station without looking at the police officers who were standing by the entrance. Two other men entered the station at the same time. My jacket was allegedly too warm for the season. I was carrying a backpack. While waiting for the tube, I looked at people coming on the platform, I played with my mobile phone, I took a piece of paper from inside my jacket.

The police found my behaviour suspicious and instigated a security alert. They surrounded me. They asked me to take off my backpack. They handcuffed me in the back. They closed and cordoned off the tube station. They stopped and searched me under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. They emptied my pockets. They loosened my belt. Explosive officers checked my backpack, gave the all clear and joked about my laptop. The handcuffs were taken off (for a few minutes) and some of the stuff I was carrying in my pockets was given back to me.

This should have been the end of the matter. Instead, an officer informed me “I was under arrest on suspicion of causing a Public Nuisance”. They then took me to Walworth police station. They processed me. They took photographs, DNA samples, fingerprints and palm prints. They searched our flat. They interviewed me. Nine hours later I was granted bail. One month later when I surrendered to custody, they said they have decided to take no further action. It takes a further month and half to get my possessions back. Three months after the arrest, the Police National Computer was still listing me as under arrest.

Calm, almost too calm

We are schooled to act as neurotypical as possible to avoid triggering police escalation. We have to defy our neurologies to avoid deadly conflict.

Police profiling is ableist and ignorant pseudoscience that we must mask against to avoid interaction.

This act of masking in the face of imminent violence is, for the most part, impossible to maintain. We have to “just take it”, but it’s hard.

I had “the talk” with my kids this morning in the car. Not the “birds and the bees” talk. The “how to stay alive because you’re black and therefore a threat” talk. Don’t wear that dark gray hoodie you love anymore. Make eye contact with authorities at all times—forget everything I’ve ever taught you about how forced eye contact is a bad thing…do it anyway, even if it hurts. Speak in a soft, gentle tone. Keep your hands where they can see them at all times. No sudden or unexpected movements and ABSOLUTELY no stimming or fidgeting or flapping as it might be perceived as attempting to strike someone. No echolalia, as it might be perceived as trying to “mock” an officer. No going to the mall with a group of friends if more than two people are male-presenting and of color. Say “yes, sir,” and “no, sir” with each statement. No nervous laughter. No sarcasm. Do everything that they ask of you even if it is unlawful. If they want to know your name, age, shoe size, whatever—just tell them. If they violate your rights we will file a complaint after the fact, but do not address it with them in the moment. If they hit you, shout at you, insult you, spit on you, just take it. We will seek justice for the wrongdoing through the legal channels. Don’t put yourself at risk by trying to stand up for yourself.

Just take it.

They listened quietly. Asked me if it was okay to just run away. Inwardly I kicked myself for forgetting to mention running. “No,” I replied. “Absolutely no running.”

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

We are also vulnerable to hate crimes or discrimination that affects us on both fronts. For instance, a young black autistic man, Neli Latson, was imprisoned for four years after being arrested outside his local library in Virginia while he was waiting for it to open.

As Kerima Çevik writes, “This disaster is the intersection of autism, ableism and racism colliding with the school to prison pipeline. See everyone who is poor in Black America prepares their son for that moment. They teach them the social cues and red flags. They tell them to have a way to make that phone call and an understanding that they will be harassed by police at some point. But autism parents are told they need to teach compliance and concrete ideas about police to their autistic children.

Latson found himself being mistreated not only because he was a black man who had the audacity to be in public, but also because he was an autistic man schooled in compliance.

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

Police don’t need better training; they need to stop treating noncompliance as justification for violence.

…escalation in the face of noncompliance puts disabled people in danger every time they encounter the cops. In fact, what I call the cult of compliance puts everyone in danger, if not equally.

Bascom notes that stimming is often treated as aberrant or undesirable behavior by authority figures—not just police, but also teachers and parents. “That said, and this is important,” she continued, this case is not about lack of awareness regarding autism. “Regardless of why he was stimming, this young man should never have been approached at all. ‘Bouncing around’ isn’t a crime. Being autistic in public isn’t a crime. There was absolutely no justification for this young man to be stopped, and obviously no reason for him to have been restrained or slammed to the ground.”

Both he and Bascom, as well as numerous other experts I consulted from the disability-rights and police-reform movements emphasized that this is not a matter of lacking training, but rather the criminalization of any behavior deemed abnormal or undesirable.

So what do we do? When incidents like these happen, departments and some advocates often focus on two deeply troubling solutions: training and registries. Both are based on the idea that police just don’t recognize disability when they see it, or don’t know what to do if they recognize it. Instead, we need to reframe policing, decriminalize noncompliance, and remove police from as many situations as possible.

4 Disabled Dead in Another Week of Police Brutality

Tell me how do I explain to such a person that the problem with Neli Latson is not simply “autism causing him to act out”?  How will they understand that there is a world in which the color of one’s skin is enough to get an arrest record whether one commits a crime or not? How to hammer home that all of this combined with a bigot who called 911 as a “concerned citizen” saw a black man in a hoodie waiting for the public library to open and decided to lie and say they saw a gun doomed Neli before he ever encountered that school resource officer? Because I’ve tried. And they just can’t leave the world they live in long enough to understand this one.

Their world is comfortable and safe. They don’t have to do anything but mumble words of sympathy because they are so confident it won’t happen to their autistic child. Why should it? They are sure their social position, income, and race keeps their children safe. They forget something very important. Neli Latson would not have come to this horrible pass had he not also been autistic. This disaster is the intersection of autism, ableism and racism colliding with the school to prison pipeline. See everyone who is poor in Black America prepares their son for that moment. They teach them the social cues and red flags. They tell them to have a way to make that phone call and an understanding that they will be harassed by police at some point.  But autism parents are told they need to teach compliance and concrete ideas about police to their autistic children. It gives autism parents a false sense of security about their teens encountering police.

 Every autism parent who  secretly thinks a police training course,  safety movie,  who they know,  their race or wealth will keep this from happening to their child can think again. Ableism is as obvious in this case as racism. Neli was a popular student,  well known in the area and that is why he was able to walk to the library alone without prior incident. But the person who called 911 that day was tired of seeing the Black autistic kid waiting for the library to open. Black and neurodivergent was just too different for tolerance. The fact that to this day, the caller’s identity is hidden is very damning.

Neli did not understand the intersection of racism and abuse of power. He understood the rules of police engagement and was taught that everyone had rights under the law. That of course does not leave room for how to react when racism places a black body in jeopardy. No one told him that Black males are routinely harassed by police and if the officer doesn’t like the look of them, they will arrest them on any excuse. Neli wasn’t taught what to do if the police should continue to escalate or try to incite an act that might result in an arrest. He was not told to remain passive even if insulted, beaten or arrested even if he had done nothing wrong. He reacted as he did in high school wrestling matches when set upon. This reaction destroyed his life.

For four years, I have felt like I’ve been in a nightmare where I scream and people see my mouth move but no sound is heard. No matter what I did or do, no one sees or hears Neli.  Neli’s former attorney was ignorant of autism so the defense was a disaster as it in fact supported the case that autism makes Neli dangerous.  The Washington Post at one point flipped its initial and recent balanced coverage of the case to support this incorrect perspective of the “dark side of autism” complete with parent interviews. The presentation of the unfortunate defense case opened the way to a 25 year sentence. Autism organizations used Neli’s case as a cautionary tale of the evils of not using  early intervention where “therapy” means compliance training through ABA and then promoted their own first responder training materials.

Intersected: Making Neli Latson Matter: The Invisible Intersected Black Members of The Autism Community

But no one had trained him to recognize one of the classic signs of autism: the repetitive movements that autistic people rely on to manage their anxiety in stressful situations, known as self-stimulation or “stimming.” That’s what Connor was doing with the string when Officer Grossman noticed him while he was on patrol.

Studies show that these kinds of interactions between disabled people and law enforcement are terrifyingly common, and often go unreported. A white paper published last year by the Ruderman Family Foundation reported, “Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers.”

Opinion | The Police Need to Understand Autism – The New York Times

Disability is the missing word in media coverage of police violence.

Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. Disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated. The media is ignoring the disability component of these stories, or, worse, is telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism.

When we leave disability out of the conversation or only consider it as an individual medical problem, we miss the ways in which disability intersects with other factors that often lead to police violence. Conversely, when we include disability at the intersection of parallel social issues, we come to understand the issues better, and new solutions emerge.

THE RUDERMAN WHITE PAPER ON MEDIA COVERAGE OF LAW ENFORCEMENT USE OF FORCE AND DISABILITY

Predictive policing can also perpetuate existing prejudices in the policing of disabled people – especially disabled people of color. Disability is more prevalent in communities of color,85 and disabled people are also more likely to be lower income,86 meaning that neighborhoods with higher concentrations of people of color and low-income people, which are historically likely to be subjected to increased policing, will also be neighborhoods with higher concentrations of disabled people. Thus, place-based predictive programs can exacerbate the concentration of policing resources in areas with significant numbers of disabled people. Similarly, person-based predictive programs use a range of data to flag certain people as likely threats, including data that can be related to disability but isn’t relevant to whether someone is a threat, raising the risk of profiling as well as self-perpetuating cycles of suspicion and criminalization.

For instance, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office in Florida piloted a “juvenile intelligence analysis” program that created secret lists of students deemed at-risk for potential future crime for reasons including receiving D grades, having 3-4 absences in a quarter, or being victimized by domestic violence – all experiences much more likely to happen to disabled students receiving insufficient support, experiencing chronic illness, or being abused.87

These risks, which may not be possible to mitigate or eliminate, can only serve to deepen existing disparities in policing and incarceration that impact disabled people. Consider:

  • Developmentally disabled people, including autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities, are at least seven times more likely to encounter police.88
  • Disabled students, especially Black and Brown disabled students, were among students most frequently subjected to school-related arrests, as documented in the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2017-2018 school year.89
  • Disabled people, especially those with cognitive and emotional disabilities, are almost 44 percent more likely to be arrested than nondisabled people.90
  • Many disabled people experience police brutality because of profiling and misunderstanding characteristics of their disabilities. For instance, autistic people and people with mental illnesses may be perceived as being on drugs, Black people with mobility devices may be profiled as having a violent criminal history,91 and deaf people may be perceived as noncompliant or defiant for not following verbal orders.92
Ableism And Disability Discrimination In New Surveillance Technologies: How new surveillance technologies in education, policing, health care, and the workplace disproportionately harm disabled people – Center for Democracy and Technology

But officers who say they feel more confident after training may not know more about autism than untrained officers, according to a 2020 study. In that analysis, officers with prior training were just as likely as untrained officers to use physical force or handcuffs on an autistic person, or to admit one involuntarily to a hospital. They performed better on a test of autism knowledge after a new training designed by the study authors.

“If you have 50 hours of training on how to make sure you’re in control at all times and tackle people, and then four hours of training on dealing with autistic people, you’re not going to be acting on those four hours of training in a crisis,” says Sam Crane, legal director at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

Despite the fact that many officers say they feel more confident in their ability to interact with autistic people after training, a small survey of autistic people who’d had police encounters in Canada found that more than half were unhappy with those interactions, with many respondents reporting feeling uncomfortable, anxious and afraid. “There’s this gap between what the police are satisfied with and what members of the public who are autistic are experiencing and their levels of satisfaction,” Drapela says.

Autism training may also be worthless unless it includes accountability, such as penalties for officers who don’t put those lessons into practice, advocates say. “I want a cop to have to think twice before they act,” says Kim Kaiser, program director at The Color of Autism. “They should know that the consequences are going to be swift and harsh.”

Why autism training for police isn’t enough | Spectrum | Autism Research News

The violence of the norm that is imposed without ever having to be spoken as such is debilitating. Not only does it normalize education, siphoning out difference of all kinds, but it also forces all bodies who want to be recognized as “knowledgeable” (and thus human) to be organized within an incredibly unimaginative matrix. This violence of course plays out far beyond the academic institution, affecting how bodies are considered to have value to society, even allowing certain bodies to be killed or altered to facilitate neurotypical existence (see Not Dead Yet for an account of how neurodiverse and disabled bodies tend not to be given the same life-saving medical treatment; see the Ashley Treatment for medical procedures that allow parents of disabled children to alter their bodies without their consent).

Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm

In nearly all media accounts, and throughout much of the research literature, autistic functioning is portrayed in thoroughly ableist terms as a medicalized deficit that requires extensive correction. For many autistic toddlers and young children, the requirement to do things in the same manner as non-autistic kids often means that months and years are spent in some form of intensive behavioral training meant specifically to make them appear less autistic. Educator Lennard Davis (2010) calls the ableist enforcement of normality onto the bodies and minds of disabled people “the tyranny of the norm,” (p. 6) and states that “the ‘problem’ is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem’ of the disabled person” (p. 3).

This problem-focused and medicalized approach to autism, which is devoid of autistic voices and autistic agency, leads to treatments, therapies, and educational approaches that do not respect the humanity, autonomy, or dignity of autistic people – and this is especially true for many of the treatments that are focused on autistic toddlers and young children.

Interrogating Normal: Autism Social Skills Training at the Margins of a Social Fiction | ScholarWorks

The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men. It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence.

This cult of compliance provides the point of intersection between racism and militarization of law enforcement — the primary factors at play in Ferguson — and other issues, such as the overuse of stun guns and the failure of police to respond to the needs of the mentally ill. Police may be motivated by their racism to harass people of color, but when officers get violent, they almost always cite a form of noncompliance as their justification.

In many cases, people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands, and the police initiate violence despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.

Mental illness has been sidelined as a separate issue requiring specialized training rather than included in broader conversations. To my knowledge, this is the first time that any major law enforcement official has included police violence against minorities and police violence against those with disabilities in the same review and identified them as part of the same broader problem.  

It’s a link that needs to be made. In the vast majority of cases, especially those involving young black and Latino men, police can punish someone for noncompliance with impunity, and because of deeply entrenched racism, little is done in the way of reform. But when someone is disabled or unwell, violent police action reveals itself as what it is: disproportionate, crude and uncalled for. It is therefore imperative to consider the two situations side by side and integrate them into a broader discussion about how the police treats people who, for whatever reason, do not comply with their every whim.

First, we have to recognize the common denominators in many of these incidents: that people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands and that the police initiate violence, despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.

Ferguson and the cult of compliance | Al Jazeera America

The Ruderman Family Foundation released the first Ruderman White Paper today – a groundbreaking, comprehensive study on the topic of police-related violence and media coverage in cases involving a person with a disability – which shockingly reveals that up to half of all people killed by police in the United States are disabled, and that almost all well-known cases of police brutality involve a person with a disability. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated.

However, perhaps more shocking is the prevalence of disabilities in these encounters not being accurately or commonly reported. The report, co-authored by professor David M. Perry and award-winning disability activist Lawrence Carter-Long, unveils that media coverage of police violence fails to recognize or report the disability element when Americans are injured or killed by law enforcement, resulting in their stories being segregated from the issue in the media. This report examines the past three years of media coverage relating to police violence and disability, reviewing eight individual cases against people with disabilities since the death of a young man with Down syndrome named Ethan Saylor in January 2013.

In the vast majority of cases within this timeframe, the research reveals the following patterns in the overall data:

  • Disability goes unmentioned or is listed as an attribute without context
  • An impairment is used to evoke pity or sympathy for the victim
  • A medical condition or “mental illness” is used to blame victims for their deaths
  • An estimated 80% of all cases that involve disability are categorized as “mental illness”
  • In rare instances, where disabilities are used as reason for intersecting forces that lead to dangerous use-of-force incidents, better models for policing in the future are suggested

“This White Paper reveals that people with disabilities are senselessly being subjected to a disproportionate use of force by our police and many of these encounters are leading to unnecessary deaths. Police forces need better practices, policies and procedures when interacting with people with disabilities so that harm by our law enforcement authorities is prevented,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “Training is a necessary first step. Reforming the system follows closely behind. The rights of people with disabilities must be respected just like any other American citizen.”

Ruderman Family Foundation » Media Missing the Story: Half of All Recent High Profile Police-Related Killings Are People with Disabilities

we face a continued crisis of centuries of surveillance and policing of racialized bodies. Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Brown people have always been the targets of state violence and the violence of structural racism. When combined with ableism, those at the intersections live in fear of constant violence without any hope of justice. It’s long past time that our movements, our organizations, our activists in the disability community start addressing our replication of white-centric structures and start challenging racism—and anti-blackness in particular.

While police brutality certainly impacts white disabled people, such as eleven year old Emily Holcomb, arrested and removed from her school in handcuffs after defending herself against violent physical restraint, disabled people of color are particularly vulnerable to state violence.

Many activists within the autistic community will describe ignorance borne of ableism as the root cause for police violence against autistic and other disabled people. They will urge better outreach to police and prosecutors and training on developmental disabilities as the solutions. Yet they will rarely, if ever, acknowledge the equally insidious impact of structural racism not merely on which of us are most vulnerable but also on how our community responds. Police training is important and useful, but no amount of awareness training will erase unconscious ableism and racism. Outreach can lead to better outcomes for some, but those of us who experience multiple layers of marginality cannot rely on police as an institution to protect or serve us. Before they hear our presentation on respectful interaction with autistic people, they see Black and Brown faces and project racialized criminality onto neurodivergent bodies marked doubly by race and disability.

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

Over half of people killed by police are disabled. I think of Stephon Watts, Steven Eugene Washington, Natasha McKenna, John Williams, Mohamed Usman Chaudhry, Kajieme Powell, Freddie Gray, all disabled and Black or Brown.

What terrifies me is that these numbers are probably conservative estimates.

This is ableism.

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

Further reading,