July 2nd, 2016

How we Stop the Next Hannah Cohen Incident

TSA agents injured and terrified a young woman with disabilities. How do we keep it from happening again?

Miles of mountains perfectly framed by dense, summer foliage and fluffy, low-hanging clouds

Late last night, part way through a long trip home to the Carolina mountains by foot, train, car, bus, and plane, the image of a young woman’s bleeding face cropped up in my Facebook news feed. She had a run-in with airport security. Because she has cognitive and hearing impairments, among other impairments, she was slow to respond to TSA agents’ verbal directions. She got overwhelmed and panicked. It looks like the agents’ response was to throw her on the ground and drag her away in handcuffs. Her entire family missed their flights, and I can’t imagine the fear she must have felt as a vulnerable person with multiple disabilities in jail. A TSA representative asked about the situation advised people with disabilities and their loved ones to “call ahead” about the screening process and their needs.

I have a hard time wrapping my mind around how anyone imagined that jail was the right response to a meltdown or panic attack. Fear and disability aren’t crimes. She did no serious damage to persons or property. People who are too constitutionally fragile to handle some thrashing and screaming from distressed individuals probably don’t belong on the front lines of law enforcement and national security.

I also don’t know that calling ahead would have prevented this problem, which has played out in different ways for people with invisible disabilities in security checkpoints and brushes with police across America. What might stop these violent incidents is training. How many unnecessary, preventable beatings and suffocations, shootings, public humiliations and indignities, unnecessary separations of people with disabilities from their aides, unnecessarily invasive searches, and lawsuits will it take to convince us to push for policy change? We need training on disability for law enforcement personnel, every single armed officer sworn to protect the public and permitted to use force to do it, TSA and immigration personnel, everyone with a gun and handcuffs who comes into contact with the public. Some local police departments are stepping up and training officers of their own accord or in response to local advocates, but there are still people in law enforcement and related fields who can’t reliably differentiate a panic attack, meltdown, or psychotic episode from threatening and potentially criminal behavior. Officers sometimes see threats even where disabled people are unarmed.

The status quo is a dangerous, sometimes lethal, situation for people with disabilities, and it will continue until people in law enforcement and related fields know better. What happened to Hannah Cohen will continue to endanger people with disabilities who are traveling, or just coexisting with police officers in public places, until we demand policies that will make it stop.

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