By Gus Alexiou
Five days after George Floyd’s death following his arrest and violent restraint by Minneapolis police officers, over 6000 miles away, on the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, another innocent man also lost his life at the hands of state authorities.
Thirty-Two-year-old Palestinian Eyad Hallaq was not just innocent because he had committed no crime but also because he was at the severe end of the autism spectrum. He had limited communication skills and no comprehension of the palpable haze of sectarian tensions overshadowing that district of the city.
His death is part of a wider global pandemic of individuals with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric disorders losing their life because police forces misinterpret behaviors relating to their condition as suspicious and non-compliant.
On top of this, individuals with autistic traits and learning disabilities are also often exploited by criminal gangs and terrorist organizations.
In the case of Hallaq, however, he was simply walking with his carer to the special needs rehabilitation center which he had been attending for the past six years, where he was part of a group learning to work in a kitchen.
Petrified and unable to understand the commands of two Israeli security officers, who had shouted at him to stop because they believed him to be carrying a pistol, Hallaq fled and hid behind a garbage container. According to reports, despite his carer screaming in Hebrew that he was disabled, he was shot twice in the chest.
Hallaq’s killing sparked outrage in the country. Both Israelis and Palestinians took to the streets to protest and the hashtag “Palestinian lives matter” was shared on social media.
The connection with George Floyd’s death was not just down to timing. Campaigners have also cited police training exchange programs between the United States and Israel.
Allegedly, the precinct in Minneapolis being held to account for Floyd’s death has participated in such programs, some of which involve restraint protocols such as choking headlocks and knees to the chest and neck.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu described Hallaq’s death as a “tragedy” and added, “this is a man with limitations – autism – who was under suspicion, we know, wrongly, of being a terrorist in a very sensitive location.”
Criminals and terrorists exploit disabled people
While police interactions with individuals with communication difficulties often boil down to a lack of awareness, the opposite is true when it comes to criminals, who actively seek to exploit this vulnerability.
Israeli forces in Hebron have reported that insurgents often send boys with autism or Down’s syndrome to provoke IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers by throwing stones.
The intention is to capture on camera the part of the interaction where soldiers attempt to fend off the antagonist, in order to gain social media shares, sewing confusion and sparking outrage.
ISIS has also been known to make a point of showing blind jihadists or those with other physical handicaps in their recruitment videos.
The marketing collateral of the “unlikely jihadist” conveys the notion that all should work to the very limits of their capabilities to strike down the kuffar, or disbelievers.
In the U.K., county lines drug dealers routinely target vulnerable youths with learning disabilities, many of whom have been excluded from school, to assist in expanding their operations beyond the big cities and out into the smaller provincial towns.
Using social media as the prime recruitment platform, they exploit the eagerness of these vulnerable children to form friendships and are fully aware that they will be unable to recognize the grooming process for what it truly is.
Another tactic is to rope individuals with learning and communication difficulties into a process known as “cuckooing”. This involves taking over the residence of a vulnerable individual and using it as a base for operations.
The process may involve the pretense of friendship and the offer of drugs but threats and intimidation revolving around the accumulation of debt are also commonly seen.
Justice system failing disabled people
Even the justice system itself is failing disabled people according to a recent report by the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission) in the U.K.
The report found that the legal system is not geared towards understanding and addressing the unique communication needs of those with learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders, thereby limiting their participation and access to justice by failing to make appropriate adjustments.
Additional concerns were also raised that an increased level of digitization of services due to covid-19 is likely to further increase these barriers.
Police killings of disabled people in the United States
As might be expected, today, the focus remains firmly on police reform in the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
It is inescapable and undeniable that the list of vulnerable adults with psychiatric, intellectual and physical impairments that have died at the hands of U.S. law enforcement over the past few years makes for grim reading.
Notable recent cases include that of 22-year-old Adam Trammell in 2018. Trammell suffered from schizophrenia and died after being repeatedly tased while unarmed and in the shower after three West Milwaukee police officers were dispatched to investigate reports of Trammell suffering a psychological breakdown.
In 2017, Magdiel Sanchez, a 35-year old deaf man with learning disabilities was a victim of a police shooting and died on the front lawn of his Oklahoma City home after police mistook a section of piping he had in his hands for a weapon.
He died because he was unable to hear the officer’s commands to put the object down and was shot even though his neighbors cried out to police officers that he was deaf.
All in all, according to a report published by disability organization the Ruderman Family Foundation, between a third and a half of people who die at the hands of police in the U.S. may have a disability.
Within these estimates, black individuals appear to be disproportionately affected according to a 2017 report authored by Erin J. McCauley on the likelihood of arrest by the age of 28.
Her study found that 43% of her sample with a disability had been arrested by this age in contrast to 30% without a disability.
This number was increased when race was factored into the equation, with 55% of black youths and young adults who also had a disability being arrested, in contrast to 37% with a disability who were not black.
Policing reform drastically needed
Critical structural issues within U.S. first responder protocols also prevail. Police are often the first on the scene in situations that would be better served by the presence of unarmed mental health professionals with specialist training.
Campaign Zero, which is associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, is calling for enhanced crisis intervention training for police officers and a redirecting of funds towards specialized mental health response teams.
Originally posted on Forbes