Feature Issue on Disability Rights, Disability Justice

Arc of Justice


Leigh Anne McKingsley is senior director at The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability in Washington, D.C. mckingsley@thearc.org

Janet Stewart is managing editor of Impact. stew0390@umn.edu.

Editor’s note: This article contains language describing an act of police violence that could be distressing for some readers.

Leigh Anne, you are a long-time contributor to Impact, and we are really pleased to have you back for this issue to talk about The Arc’s justice work. How did the National Center get started?

Thank you. Ten years ago, we received funding through the Department of Justice to create The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability, though we began doing this work decades ago after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was really a dream come true to get enough funding and support to look at criminal justice issues specifically, because there traditionally hasn’t been a lot of funding in this area. We were grateful for the opportunity to finally focus intently on the intersection of intellectual and developmental disabilities and criminal justice. Getting to where we are today has been a long journey.

I wanted to ask you about that struggle. As someone who is passionate about criminal justice and disability advocacy, how frustrating is it that initiatives coming out of the ADA and other laws take so long to become practical reality?

Pretty frustrating, but change doesn't happen overnight. I kind of had to take that in stride and did a lot of different things at The Arc over the years before we started seeing fruit in the criminal justice area of advocacy. And, really what kept me going was the stories. As a person who survived quite a few things in my own life, when I would hear stories of people [fighting injustices], it would light the fire to keep going, no matter what. And so, that is really what sustained me throughout this journey. And the more that I've talked to other people about this issue, it's kind of like we are creating our own little world of advocacy. You see new people coming into the cause, and that's been the most exciting part.

Was there one case in particular that stands out?

When I first came to The Arc, I worked on a death penalty case in Texas. And I remember there were six people involved in a murder case. Out of all of those individuals, everyone pointed the finger to one person, the one person who had intellectual disability. The legal team flew in experts to explain to the jury what the situation was regarding the person’s disability, and I was just sure they would understand. [But] it did not make one difference. Because the crime was so serious, I think it just did not allow anyone to see what had actually happened, and how there was one fall guy and everyone pointed the finger to that person.

When you realize how often that was happening throughout the country and other states, then, you know [the injustice that is going on] is widespread. I think that's been one of the biggest “a-ha” moments for me. And that's not just true in death penalty cases. That's true across the board, whether someone's a victim of a crime or has been accused of a crime and then hurt or killed in police custody. I knew this was so much bigger than just the death penalty, and we had to have funding streams and ways to support this issue at every stage of the criminal justice process, that we couldn't just look at one piece of this.

Recently in your blog, you said Pathways to Justice (or Pathways), a community-based program aimed at improving access to justice for people with IDD and forming disability response teams with law enforcement and others, is taking a fresh look at its practices using a disability justice lens. What prompted this?

The need to focus on the intersection of disability and race or disability and the LGBTQ+ community has been part of the NCCJD for many years. In 2017, we hosted a webinar to raise awareness of the systemic issues within the criminal justice system that are dramatically impacting people of color, or those who identify as LGBTQ+, who also have disabilities. We were able to look at the different intersections that play into discrimination and violence towards people with IDD. And we wanted to look at any innovative programs that were focusing on solutions. And then, following the killing of George Floyd, we were thinking, “How do we ensure that people with disabilities are leading the conversation on these issues?”

We're looking at not only bringing this key piece into our Pathways training, which we've had for a number of years now, but also how it can be used in other trainings. That has been a little challenging. There's a training called CRIT, which is Crisis Response Intervention Training. It has been a wonderful opportunity, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, to take traditional Crisis Response Team CIT training, or CIT training, and ensure that we have more information on IDD throughout police training. We weren't able to bring in thinking about the other identities of people with IDD to that conversation. Now we have an opportunity, through the COPS [Community Oriented Policing Services] office, also a part of the Department of Justice, to do an online training called Just Policing. We're including information about intersectionality, as well as justice-involved youth in both of these programs over the next two years.

A father, mother, and teenage boy stand close together and smile.

The Parsa family. Photo courtesy of The Arc.

Who is this training for?

The Just Policing program is for law enforcement officers. Pathways is more comprehensive and includes law enforcement, prosecution and defense attorneys, victim advocates, and others. We include all the key players who could potentially interact with either a suspect, defendant, or victim, so that we're addressing this holistically. We’re not simply saying, if we just come in and do a training, we can check that box that you got that training. We know from experience that training alone is never going to work. There has to be a more comprehensive world of supports built around that training, and that includes creating a disability response team made up of, at a minimum, a local law enforcement officer, a victim advocate, an attorney, a person with a disability, and a disability advocate.

Typically, these teams start with 15 to 20 people, and could include probation and parole, and someone from corrections as well. It's really a way [for communities] to say, “Look, we're going to get in front of this issue. We choose to be proactive. We're not waiting for that crisis to happen.” The reality has been there is a lack of services in our communities, and you can't sugarcoat it. If we don't have places for people to get support, then where do they go? They end up cycling back into the criminal justice system.

Now, The Arc has also been working with individual families to promote awareness about people with IDD in the justice system. Can you share one of those stories?

There's one family in particular who reached out to us a few years ago regarding their son, Eric Parsa, a 16-year-old boy with autism who died at the hands of law enforcement while they were with him. I remember working on their case and just how emotional it was and how difficult it was to see this family go through this. And it was just recently that they reached back out to me because their lawsuit had been settled and they were now able to speak about it. They never dreamed that they would lose their son in the tragic way that they did. They were out together, and he was playing laser tag at a place in their community. When they were preparing to leave, Eric started having behaviors that concerned them and police were called. When the police arrived, Eric was put in a choke hold and he died right there, with his mom and dad looking on in utter horror and disbelief that this was happening. [A few months] before this, they had an interaction with police officers who knew how to de-escalate the situation and there was no problem. So, you can imagine they're in this situation thinking that the same thing would happen. And so, [this demonstrates] that there just isn't that consistency in response. And that's why the training is important, but that's not the only thing that's important.

Training is one of those things that can help officers understand what exactly can go wrong and just how wrong it can go. The incident with Eric happened very quickly; in just minutes, he lost his life. So, we're doing everything we can to support Eric’s family in their own healing. They are traumatized by this, and they don't want Eric to ever be forgotten. And we're looking for ways to make sure that his story is told. They want to make sure this doesn't happen to any other person with a disability or their family.

In other cases, racial issues in addition to disability have been raised as a key issue regarding encounters with police, and that's why we want to make sure that whether we're creating a training, or webinars, or whatever it is that we're doing, that we include a very diverse set of voices. It’s important to recognize the existence of bias, and we talk about that in our training. We have to understand how bias and stereotypes affect how we communicate and the quality of our communication with people with IDD.

A number of communities around the country have started thinking about alternative policing methods.

I'm glad you raised that because the new 9-8-8 number, which is a suicide and crisis hotline, could be used in crisis response for people with IDD. And peer-based intervention within the IDD community, too, holds a lot of promise and is really important. The more we include people with IDD and support their leadership in developing better responses to crisis situations, the better.