Behind Facebook Live attack, unseen scourge of crime against disabled

The attack on a mentally disabled man, streamed live on Facebook, points to the fact that disabled Americans are three times more likely to face violent crime.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/AP
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks during a news conference Thursday on the hate crime and other charges filed against four individuals for an attack on a man that was captured on a Facebook video.

The Facebook Live stream of an assault against a mentally disabled young man led to the circulation of the disturbing images among millions of Americans.

One of the lingering effects could be a greater awareness of the fact that people with disabilities are subject to violent crimes at three times the rate of their non-disabled peers.

The suspects were charged with hate crimes Thursday. The charges are based partly on the fact that the victim was white and the four black suspects in the video yelled expletives about white people and Donald Trump during the beating.

But they are also based on the victim’s disabilities, said Cmdr. Kevin Duffin, a detective with Chicago police, at a press conference Thursday. “Half-dozen of one, six of the other,” he said of the rationale behind the hate crime charges.

During the past several decades, society has grown more inclusive of the disabled, schools have increased antibullying efforts, and some police have bolstered training, but when it comes to addressing “our core dehumanization of people with disabilities … incidents like this show how far we have to go,” says David Perry a professor of history at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., and an advocate for disability rights.

Recognizing a need

The Chicago case involves an 18-year-old man who has not been identified. Police say he was dropped off at a McDonalds by his parents for a sleepover with an acquaintance. That acquaintance, identified as Jordan Hill, picked him up in a stolen van and drove around with him for two days, apparently without incident, police say.

It wasn’t until the victim got into a “play fight” with Mr. Hill and three of his friends that the situation escalated into the abuse streamed on Facebook Live, Mr. Duffin said. The victim was beaten, cut, and forced to drink toilet water over a period of five to six hours, police added. He eventually escaped when neighbors called the police to complain about the noise.

Among all the categories of disability, those with cognitive disabilities experience the highest rates of violent crime.

Victim service providers increasingly recognize “this is a community that they need to develop relationships with so there is support for people in the aftermath of violence,” says Nancy Smith of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

The Vera Institute has worked in 60 communities around the United States to help bridge such gaps, and Ms. Smith says she’s starting to see awareness among law enforcement officials “shift to a point of, ‘OK, let’s develop our skills and infrastructure to better respond to these survivors.’ ”

Those first signs of a shift are apparent in Boston, for example, where the public transportation system and a local rape crisis center have included people with disabilities in their public awareness campaign against harassment and sexual assault. Posters show how bystanders can protect the disabled, as well as how the disabled can help protect their fellow riders – akin to the See Something, Say Something security campaigns.

Boston Area Rape Crisis Center/MBTA
Anti-harrassment posters for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority incorporate people with disabilities.

In Cleveland, police have started to use video phones to connect deaf crime victims or witnesses with sign language interpreters. In the past, they often had to wait so long for an in-person interview that they would give up, Smith says.

“Like any other form of discrimination, as we as a society become more sensitive to [crime against people with disabilities], many good-hearted, good-natured people are trying to make sure it’s grossly unacceptable,” says Mark Hellner, executive director of the Center for Disability & Elder Law in Chicago, which provides free legal aid.

Hate crimes

As in Illinois, some states and the federal government also include a victim’s disability status as a hate-crime category. The FBI’s 2015 hate crime statistics show that 1.3 percent of the 5,850 reported incidents were prompted by disability bias.

But those numbers probably undercount the problem, says Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.

Some large cities report zero hate crimes, which suggests they aren’t reporting correctly or aren’t looking closely enough at motivating factors, he says. Moreover, prosecutors often drop such cases, because they are worried that a person with a disability that affects their ability to speak clearly will be difficult to work with to persuade a jury, he adds.

In schools, many students still see some signals of maltreatment of people with disabilities, Mr. Decker adds.

“It starts with bullying and harassing,” he says. “If schools allow that based on disability, and if teachers and officials are secluding and restraining them in front of other students [as punishment] … it’s a continuum of devaluing kids with disabilities.”

The US Department of Education has been pushing for a shift away from the use of “seclusion and restraint” in response to behavior problems.

It’s a sign that many people are making a good effort, says Professor Perry. “Changing societal perceptions of a marginalized group of people is a very long game.”

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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