Senseless Crimes pt2

root - Posted on 06 August 2001

by Leroy Moore

Elizabeth Grigsby, a Consumer Advocate of San Francisco Golden Gate Regional Center, put it straight when she said, "I'm not about to sugarcoat anything!" at the Senseless Crimes Open Forum on crimes and brutality against people with disabilities on July14th. This truth-telling turned the forum into a healing arena for the community and people with disabilities that was long overdue, and by the results of the evaluations of the forum, it needs to continue.

The seed of this forum was planted in 1998 when Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization started writing for POOR Magazine on issues that face disabled people of color. After two years of writing and researching issues that touch disabled people of
color we, at DAMO, noticed the issue of crimes and brutality against people with disabilities and people with mental illness, and especially against people of color who are poor, is an unspoken, deadly issue that is a reality.

DAMO had a vision to lift these words from its article entitled "Senseless Crimes" on Illin-N-Chillin, a column on Poor Magazine's on-line news service, and put them into action. The lead-up to this forum was a struggle for grassroots organizations with this vision, because of the lack of funding and other resources as well as the shame or "hush, hush" feelings that engulf the issue of crimes and brutality against people with disabilities.

However, July 14th came, and the Senseless Crimes Open
forum was a success. The Forum consisted of a diverse panel with specialists in the areas of crimes against people with disabilities and mental illness, as well as disabled advocates, parents, media organizations, advocacy organizations that represent people with disabilities and the SFPD ADA Coordinator.

In the tradition of Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization and Poor Magazine, the forum also used poetry to express and heal. One of the big concerns was how to connect the people with organizations and resource on this issue. With an outreach table of information, including the long-awaited Senseless Crime Booklet of articles, a list of organizations to contact and poetry taken from Illin-N-Chillin and Po' Poets column at, that bridge was connected.

One of the co-sponsors of this forum, Daniel Sorensen of Crime Victims with Disabilities Initiative of California and a parent of a young man with disabilities, opened up the forum with many shocking
but unfortunately true facts of crimes against people with disabilities. Ten years ago when he started this work, only two dozen individuals were working on the issue of crimes against whom he calls "The Invisible Victims!" People with disabilities, family organizations, law enforcement agencies and social service agencies were "asleep at the wheel." Today more than several hundred people across the country are working on this issue.

Danniel Sorensen laid out what CVDI is doing state wide through the new Crime Victims with Disabilities Specialist Grants. These grants will set up a specialist in six counties in California to do two main things:

(1) to work with communities and social service agencies of people with disabilities to become aware of this issue and to increase the number of reported crimes against people with disabilities.

(2)To work directly with the criminal justice system on a case by case basis to assist them to investigate, pro and try people with disabilities.

All of this will take years and a massive on-going educational campaign to all avenues in California i.e. the media, the criminal justice system, law enforcement, social services, community organizations and schools. The Crime Victims with Disabilities
Initiative has the backing of Governor Gray Davis and CVDI is creating a speaker bureau on this issue to educate the public.

Elizabeth Grigsby, consumer advocate for the Golden Gate Regional Center, brought up crimes of the unspoken abuse that goes on in some local nursing and group homes. Ms. Grigsby's strong activist voice made it clear that we as people in the community need to step up to the plate for those who are in these institutions without a voice and choice on how they live their own lives. She spoke passionately about the lack of funds for in-home support services to move people with
disabilities from institutions to the community. "We need more pro-active techniques like going to Sacramento and chaining ourselves to the Governor's office until he agrees to spend more money for
in-home-support-services.!" Elizabeth demanded. She ended with a call for people to get involved, and not to sit on the sidelines.

Weeks before the forum Lisa and I knew that the main focus of the forum would turn into police shootings of people with mental illness and we were right because of the recent shooting of Idriss Stelley. Sergt. Michael Sullivan, the Americans with Disability Act Coordinator of San Francisco Police Department, reminded the audience that he has been working on the recent training of 20 or so police on how to approach and deal with people with mental illness. He is committed to push this training to all police officers.

An audience member questioned why people know the number for the police 911 but don't know the number for a mental health crisis hotline. She recommended that police officers and mental health workers act as a team in responding to calls from a person in a mental health crisis.

Lance Martin from the Coalition on Homeless asked "Are our values skewed when the SPCA of San Francisco built a multi-million dollar animal shelter with carpets and televisions, but people who are homeless and mentally ill are getting beaten up and shot on the street with very little outcry?" It's not only what happens on the streets, people with mental illness are also fighting sometimes their own advocacy parent organizations that are lobbying in the halls of our political arena. Martin brought this issue to the table when he talked about the pro-force treatment platform of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Sometimes people with disabilities are surrounded by advocates and organizations, and society forgets that the only people who know about their disabled sons and daughters may be their parents.

Sonia Ricks of Family Resource Network and Harambee of
Oakland claims she has earned a Masters Degree in being a mother and advocate of her African American son! She described how people view her tall, African American son with a developmental disabilities. Although her son is a good looking and talented young man many parents and teachers hold the view him as a threat. Although he, like any young man, likes to get to know girls, many parents are afraid that this tall black young man is a threat to their daughters.

Mary Kate of Caduceus gave the open forum a new avenue on how to force the rights of people with mental illness when it comes to police shootings and mistreatment of people with mental illness. She is
looking at to get Department Of Justice in title two of the Americans with Disabilities. She researched the ADA and people with mental illness and noticed that people with mental illness had been left out in the coverage of the ADA. If Mary Kate is successful this will be one of the first case looking at people with mental illness and police shootings under the ADA.

Mesha Irizarry, mother of Idriss Stelley, spoke about her work on training police in addressing people with mental illness, work that reaches beyond the case of her son. She remembered a 13-year-old Samoan boy with Down syndrome who was shot by SFPD in 1988, because he had a toy gun. Mesha pledged that she is in this for the long run, and her beautiful words closed the forum. Po' Poets kept Idriss Stelley alive through their spoken word tribute.

In all, the Senseless Crimes: Open Forum broke new ground and gave an arena for this drastically important issue. We at Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization and Poor Magazine are looking how to keep this forum going and how to create more action steps to solve this issue, but we need you. Please contact us with your ideas.


Senseless Crimes Open Forum: Crimes Against People with Disabilities

The report back

By Fiona Gow

Leroy, in the first of what will hopefully be many open forums to discuss and organize around the issue of crimes against the disabled, brought together a group of people rich in experience and insight to open up the discussion of how to end violence against the disabled. Panelists included Daniel Sorensen, chairmen of the California Victims of Crime Committee, the renowned mental health expert Mary Kate Connor of Caduceus Outreach Services, Mesha Irizarry-longtime mental health advocate and mother of Idriss Stelley, the young man who was recently shot by police, Michael Sullivan, ADA coordinator for the San Francisco Police Department, Sonia Ricks of Oakland's Family Resource Network, Elizabeth Grisgsby of Golden Gate Regional Center, Lisa Gray-Garcia of POOR Magazine, Chance Martin from
the Coalition on Homelessness, and Diana Wolf of Critical Focus.

A book of poems and essays about crimes against the disabled, many written in honor of Idriss Stelley, was created by the PO' Poets for this conference. The poem "Can't Rest", included in the book, gives some insight into why Leroy organized this panel and how strong his spirit is in this fight.

Can't Rest
I can't rest
My disabled brothers and sisters
Are shot, dragged and beaten to death

Society is scared of him
Big, black and mentally ill
Take him away and give him more pills

I can't sleep
My disabled brothers and sisters are living on the streets
The Americans with Disabilities Act has done nothing for me

Listen to my life

Got raped in a shelter
Got robbed on the streets
Three strikes and now I'm in prison for life

I can't rest
Millions for Ed Roberts' Campus
Can't even get my SSI cause I have no address

Does anybody care
Disabled youth abused in foster care
Segregated in school now I'm on welfare

My disabled brothers and sisters are put to rest
On the streets, in psychiatric wards and in prison
But I feel their spirit and anger in my chest

I won't rest
Our spirit and anger won't rest
We won't let you rest

Because the panel discussion came on the coat tails of great upset
regarding the police murder of the young, mentally ill man, Idriss Stelley, I had assumed the conference would almost exclusively focus on police brutality and murder of disabled people. But the people on the panel made very clear that violence against the disabled doesn't start or stop with the police. Violence against the disabled occurs within Board and Care facilities, institutional settings, the justice system, the home, in the school system, by the medical world, etc...The natural focus lately has been on the police, because their acts of discrimination have been the most severe, the most irreparable- they have taken people's lives, but abuse is occurring everywhere. If an honest discussion is to be had about abuse of
the disabled, the panel made clear that there are many people who will need to be held accountable.

The greatest fear people with disabilities have is of being victims of crime. Daniel Sorensen, the driving force behind the Crime Victims with Disabilities Initiative, provided some statistics on where this fear might stem from. With five million crimes a year being committed against disabled people, the disabled are 4 to 10 times more likely to be the victims of crime that is the rest of the population. Eighty-three percent of women with disabilities have been raped and 32 percent of men have. Almost 50 percent of women had been raped ten or more times. The disabled are also at an almost 13 percent greater risk for being robbed than are non-disabled people.

Not all the abuse is violent, but its effect can be just as detrimental. Elizabeth Grigsby of the Golden Gate Regional Center spoke about how little money there is for recreational activities for the disabled. She recounted how some people are made to go to sleep at 7pm; many caretakers approach the disabled with the attitude that it's easier to turn them into a vegetable, to incapacitate them so that they won't be able to demand more of life than the right to breath. On the most basic level they are not being allowed a quality of life that is anywhere near what other people non-disabled people expect. Elizabeth said some daring has a bodacious spirit and was very forthright in stating that the community needs to express their outrage about this.

Why is there so much crime against the disabled? The fact that only 5 percent of crimes against the disabled are actually prosecuted is probably a big reason. As audience member and candidate for public defender Jeff Adachi stated, "Within the criminal justice system they are not second or even third class, but fourth class citizens." Because some disabled people may not be able to communicate what has happened to them they are often written off as unreliable in court. Victims may also not understand that they have been the victims of a crime and not report the crime to anyone.

Another point that Sorensen brought up regarding why disabled people are victimized is that many of the people who work with the disabled are totally inexperienced and unqualified to do so. Most frightening is that some people actually choose to work with the disabled because they are easy to victimize and crimes against them will probably go unreported. Care providers and family members commit fifty-two percent of sex-offences against the disabled.

On the other side of the issue is how unfairly the disabled are treated when they are seen as the perpetrators of crimes. The prosecution rate of disabled people is far higher and the sentencing much harsher than for other segment of the population. Even in much more innocent things, the disabled have to be on their guard. Sonya Ricks spoke about her son, a good-looking 15-year old boy with mental disabilities. She said that expectations of him are so different that she has to be on-guard at every turn. What is acceptable for other kids his age to do is not OK for him. If he kisses a girl, it could be construed as abuse, simply because he is disabled, whereas other children are allowed to flirt and play as they will.

Lisa Gray-Garcia gave an impassioned critique of mainstream media and the responsibility it bears by not reporting how disabilities play into crime. When disabled people are murdered by law enforcement, if the media does not report a person's disability, then often they are missing one of the main points of the crime. By neglecting to mention the disability, the media let the police of the hook and no investigation is forthcoming. She claimed that the only way to correct the present situation is for people who are living the news to take it back and rewrite the story for themselves, writing the truth.

Mary Kate Connor spoke about how once mentally disabled people are in the criminal justice system little or nothing is done for their mental health needs and their problems are exacerbated. It can take up to a month of being in jail before a person's level of mental health is evaluated, and within that time their medications may well have been taken from them.

In response to demands from service providers, advocates, and the
disabled, the SFPD finally implemented an optional 40-hour training program developed to build awareness in officers of how to work with mentally ill people. Unfortunately only 24 out of 2000 officers have actually taken the training. But, with the two very recent cases of mentally ill people getting shot to death, the trainings should not be optional. When service providers voiced their outrage regarding police misconduct Mike Sullivan handed out his business card and told people to call him if anything came up. This doesn't seem like a very proactive or sincere approach to confronting the immensity of the problems. Sullivan would do better to have a taskforce out monitoring the actions and attitudes of the SFPD towards the disabled and there should be special investigations into the recent shootings of the two
mentally ill men.

A lot of hope for lessening the threat of violence towards disabled
people lies in the Crime Victims with Disabilities Initiative. Gray Davis has already approved the initiative, which allocates $739,000 to specifically address crime against the disabled. The initiative would fund a crime victim specialist to assist people with disabilities, advocates and service providers in identifying and reporting crime. The specialist would also assist law enforcement by providing technical assistance in the investigation, prosecution and trial of such cases. Educating the disabled about personal safety is another part of the initiative; service providers would be required to include a personal safety component as part of each individual client plan. The last major piece of the initiative is a public information campaign. A statewide speaker's bureau would be created for experts on crimes against people with disabilities to speak at conferences.

There would also be an information campaign targeted at consumers, their families, service providers, the criminal justice system and the general public. The campaign's focus would be on preventing crimes against persons with disabilities, reducing the risk of such crimes, assisting crime victims in securing restitution and services and promoting the timely reporting, investigation and prosecution of these crimes.

This panel was one huge step in getting information out about brutality against the disabled. Hopefully there will be more such panels and the community, service providers, disabled activists and advocates can organize forcefully around this issue and create the dramatic changes needed. As Leroy wrote in his poem about the untimely death of Idriss Stelley, a young, mentally ill man who was shot by police:

There is no ending to this book
To be continued
Cause nobody can kill an angel
But they tried but Shhhhh!!!!!!
Can you hear him


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