Charles Kinsey lay on his back in a North Miami street, his hands up in the air. He was talking to his client, an autistic man named Rinaldo, as Rinaldo sat cross-legged next to him, holding a toy fire truck in his hands. Police, armed with assault rifles, were closing in. Kinsey later told reporters, “I was really more worried about him than myself. I was thinking as long as I have my hands up … they’re not going to shoot me.” Then they shot him.
Kinsey, thankfully, is going to be OK. He’s going to be able to testify, there’s both video and audio, and I suspect this will be the rare case in which an officer is held legally and professionally accountable for what seems to be an unjust shooting.
But while the specifics of this case are unusual, the general pattern is not. Compliance-based policing — when police treat noncompliance with their instructions, on its own, as a threat — puts everyone at some risk.
Here’s what we know about the incident. A 911 call summoned the officer to the scene of a man armed with a gun contemplating suicide. We don’t know anything more about the call at this time, but none of what it purported was accurate. Rinaldo (his last name hasn’t been reported) was in the street near his group home holding a toy firetruck, and was not, as far as we know, in any sort of distress. But he was also apparently not responding to shouted instructions from the police, and that’s not unusual for people with intellectual disabilities.
This was a highly dangerous situation for Rinaldo. According to my research, published most recently in a study for the Ruderman Foundation, a third to a half of all people shot by police have some form of disability. When it comes to high-profile killings, the number is closer to 80%.
Racism and ableism, which is individual and systemic discrimination against people based on their disability, intersect to make encounters like the one that took place Monday in North Miami very dangerous. Racial bias leads officers to have more contacts with people of color and to treat those contacts as more likely to be hostile. Ableism leads officers to approach people with disabilities as erratic and dangerous. It also leads them to perceive noncompliant behavior as a sign of threat, rather than a sign of disability.
Many police are trained to approach all contacts under a principle of “ask-tell-make.” First you ask someone to comply with orders, then you order them, and then you make them through the use of force. It’s supposed to keep the officer safe, but some police trainers argue it’s a recipe for escalation and places both police and civilians in danger. Rather, such trainers argue, police need to take in the broader tactical situation when deciding how to respond, rather than simply keying off noncompliance.
For example, demanding an autistic person like Rinaldo comply with shouted verbal instructions from strangers is asking him to not be, in that moment, disabled. If force is the response to noncompliance, people like Rinaldo are in mortal peril whenever they encounter cops.
Kinsey may have saved his client’s life. He lay on the ground next to him, lifted his arms in the air, and tried to get his client to do likewise. He shouted at the officers that Rinaldo was just holding a toy truck. He’s a hero.
We don’t yet know why the as yet unidentified officer pulled the trigger. According to Kinsey, the officer didn’t know either. Kinsey told reporters, “And I’m saying, ‘Sir, why did you shoot me?’ and his words to me, he said, ‘I don’t know.'” It gets worse. The officers handcuffed Kinsey and Rinaldo, and gave Kinsey no medical assistance for 20 minutes while he waited for emergency services. Why the handcuffs? Why the delay? The specifics here are inexplicable.