The cost of criminalizing disability

Lewis Wallace Sep 7, 2016
An artist's portrayal of Kevin Matthews a mentally disabled man that was shot by police in Dearborn, Michigan. Micah Bazant/

The cost of criminalizing disability

Lewis Wallace Sep 7, 2016
An artist's portrayal of Kevin Matthews a mentally disabled man that was shot by police in Dearborn, Michigan. Micah Bazant/

Kevin Matthews loved to give people things. Every Tuesday he would go to Church’s Chicken and bring back a leg, thigh and biscuit for his mom, $1.69. Sometimes he would come back with the box soaking wet, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late into the evening, sometimes having helped himself to some of the chicken.

His mom and sisters laughed as they talked about the times he’d come home with gifts he seemed to have plucked off the curb: a dirty teddy bear, pieces of paper. He loved Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, all excuses to give gifts to his mom.

He called his family multiple times a day, they said, and he was fond of telling people he loved them, over and over. Sometimes Kevin would go missing for a day or two, but then he would turn up at his sister’s house and stay for a week, offering to mow her lawn or clean the house while she was at work.

“We wrapped our arms around him, our whole family did,” Kim Matthews, his older sister, said. “Because he was special. From the day he was born, as he started growing up and we saw something was wrong, we extra loved him hard.”

Kevin was diagnosed at age 11 with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He saw doctors and took medications throughout his life, but his main support system was his family: his mom, Valerie Johnson; his sisters, Kim and Karen Matthews; and his little brother, Lavell Matthews.

In their working-class neighborhood on the northwest edge of Detroit, Kevin always had a place to stay, usually living with his mom. And when he was sick, his whole family knew how to care for him — comforting him when the fear and paranoia kicked in, accepting his quirky and sometimes childlike way of moving through the world.

But the 35-year-old, generous and friendly, was easy to take advantage of, so the family worried. His older sister said he was beat up and robbed many times. A few times, he was hauled off to jail, or just picked up and driven home by police officers — often for something as simple as going to sleep on the street or drinking in public. His family said he didn’t really understand the laws. But he never carried a weapon, his mom said.

“He never had anything in his pockets but trash.”

When he died, the family never got a phone call. On Dec. 23, 2015, they stood outside at the edge of a police barricade in the rain for hours near the border of Dearborn and Detroit, around the corner from Johnson’s house. Just out of sight down the block, Kevin’s body lay on the street. An autopsy report later showed he had been shot at least six times, some at close range. The shooter was a uniformed member of the Dearborn Police Department.

Kevin Matthews (center).

Policing and disability

Police violence has been all over the headlines in recent years, but there’s been less discussion of how disabilities may have played a role. Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner all died while in police custody. Like Kevin Matthews, they all had disabilities or chronic illnesses.

The likelihood that people with mental illnesses or other disabilities will be killed by police is impossible to measure. There are no national databases tracking this kind of information. That said, a few numbers point to high levels of contact with police.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 32 percent of people in prisons and 40 percent of people in jails have at least one disability. Nearly half of all women in jail are disabled. And new evidence of police mistreatment of people with disabilities is mounting: the Department of Justice’s recent investigation into the Baltimore Police Department found the department was “interacting with individuals with mental health disabilities in a manner that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act,” routinely using what it called “unreasonable force” in interactions with people with mental disabilities.

One analysis of police killings looked at media reports to track people with disabilities killed by law enforcement, and estimated that anywhere from a third to half of people killed by police officers from 2013 to 2015 in the United States had some kind of disability. The numbers suggest a trend of criminalizing disability itself, said Lawrence Carter-Long, who co-authored the analysis.

“If you tell a person who’s autistic to freeze or stop, and maybe they’re overstimulated at that moment, you’re basically asking them to not be autistic,” he said. “You’re asking them not to be disabled, which is impossible.”

In addition to the potential for tragedy, there are financial costs.

“Community-based treatment and prevention services cost far less than locking an individual up and keeping them behind bars,” said Rebecca Vallas with the Center for American Progress, citing research she compiled in a recent study of mass incarceration of people with disabilities.  Another study found county jails spend anywhere from 30 percent to 300 percent more on prisoners with mental disabilities.

The cost of providing care

Health agencies rack up another set of bills when people cycle in and out of jail. People may lose access to medications and doctors while inside, and getting them back on track with treatment takes time and resources.

“It can significantly set you back,” said Carmen McIntyre, acting chief operating officer of the Detroit Wayne County Mental Health Authority, an agency independent of the county. McIntyre said 63 percent of the people in the Wayne County jail system have a history of receiving services from her agency.

The authority serves 80,000 people a year with a budget of $800 million. Much of the funding comes through Medicaid, and the remaining 20 percent from state block grants meant for people not eligible for Medicaid.

When people who are covered by Medicaid go to jail, they lose that insurance. In that instance, the Mental Health Authority has to provide care for them using its remaining grant funding. That means when its clients are incarcerated, the agency has less to spend on people outside of the jail system.

There are a number of ways people with disabilities or chronic illness are vulnerable to incarceration. McIntyre said sometimes untreated chronic pain leads to hard drug use, which increases the likelihood of police contact. Sometimes persistent mental health problems lead to homelessness, which also increases police contact. People also call the police when they’re simply nervous, but not in danger, of people with disabilities and mental health issues. Regardless, jail is an expensive, inefficient solution to the myriad problems.

“The jail system now in the United States is the largest provider of behavioral health services,” McIntyre said. “There’s certainly an overhaul that needs to happen with the system.”

Recession-era budget cuts have exacerbated the problem. Michigan alone cut tens of millions from mental health services from 2009-2012, including $30 million in cuts to Detroit’s primary community mental health center.

The Matthews family said when it came to taking care of Kevin, they were largely on their own.

“In this state, there isn’t a lot of help with mentally ill people,” Kim Matthews said. “They’re out on the streets. Families are the only ones that can keep after them.” Kevin himself spent much of his life out on the streets, and when he would end up in jail, it was just a part of life that he took in stride.

“He had fun,” she said. “It was weird but … he liked it. Because he would make so many friends.”

He was also friendly with police officers, which was part of why his death was so shocking to his family.

“Good people make mistakes”

It’s still not clear what happened the day Kevin died. As his mother remembers it, she was waiting for Kevin to come home in the early afternoon. She got a call from his girlfriend, who was just around the corner, saying somebody had just been shot. Johnson knew immediately that it was Kevin — a mother’s instinct, maybe. She rushed to the scene, and for hours she and a growing group of family members gathered on the street in the rain. They went home after dark, with no confirmation that Kevin’s body had been removed.

The family never heard from the police, but read in the news that the Dearborn police chased Kevin across the Dearborn border and into Detroit. A police press release mentioned a probation violation and said an officer pursued him on suspected larceny.

“The officer chased the subject and encountered him several houses away, in Detroit, where a struggle ensued,” read the release. Dearborn police have since acknowledged that when he died, Kevin was unarmed.

An investigation into his death was turned over to the Detroit Police Department, which has since passed the investigation to the Wayne County prosecutor. In an interview in August, assistant prosecutor Maria Miller said they were still awaiting the results of forensic tests, and would not give a timeline to release more information.

Dearborn Police Chief Ron Haddad said the incident is undergoing thorough review, but declined to give details. He confirmed the officer who pulled the trigger has been on paid administrative leave, and that Kevin had several previous interactions with the Dearborn police.

“I’m confident that most people we come in contact with, we treat in a very civil manner, but particularly Kevin Matthews,” he said, calling Kevin’s death “profoundly regrettable.”

Since Haddad became the chief in 2008, he said, the department has increased training and awareness on mental health and cognitive disabilities, and reduced its use of force significantly through new policies and requiring officers to report all uses of force.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done here over the last eight years, because our use of force has dropped down over 90 percent,” he said, noting that a majority of people his department comes in contact with either have a mental impairment or a substance use issue.  “Good people make mistakes. We try to de-escalate any threat of violence, and the trip to jail is not what we’re after.”

But Leroy Moore, an activist who produced a film about disability and police and cofounded the National Black Disability Coalition, said people with disabilities, especially black people, are frequently profiled and targeted for minor infractions. He thinks giving police mental health training isn’t the right use of funds, because it doesn’t address the underlying problems of profiling and criminalization

“Police should not be the first ones on the scene for a mental health disability or any kind of disability,” he said.

Dearborn is only four percent black. But both of the people — this includes Kevin — fatally shot in Dearborn over the last year were black. They were also both mentally ill. The family of the other person, Janet Wilson, filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Dearborn police in August.

A family adrift

The Matthews family said they used to watch Black Lives Matter protests on TV. After Kevin was killed, they started leading weekly marches to the Detroit police headquarters downtown. Now, they say they’ll be fighting for justice for those killed by police for the rest of their lives.

Kevin Matthews as a child and his older sister Kimberly. 

Kevin’s brother Lavell may be the most adrift of all of them: He was five years younger, but by the time they were adults, Kevin looked up to him and wanted to be like him. They had the same wide brown eyes and innocent grin, and some people still confuse him with Kevin. Now, he says, he can barely get through the days.“We don’t have a video, we can’t put it up on YouTube,” said Kim Matthews. “But it happened, and we know it was unjustified.”

“Everything I stood for, everything I was living for, everything I’ve been working so hard for, to show him and be a better example for him because he looked up to me, is lost,” Lavell said, gasping for breath between sobs.

He said he tried hard to be a role model to his older brother, holding down a full-time job for the last five years, working to be a good dad to his twins. “He kept us together, because we all felt like we had a job to do, which was to keep him close.”

On Christmas, just days after the shooting, Valerie Johnson opened her last gift from Kevin: a colorful winter jacket. She said she hurled the present across the room in front of all her children.

“How could he get me something?” she demanded. “He’s gone.”

Kim told her Kevin had bought it for her before he died. Now that jacket is like almost everything else about Christmas: a reminder of what her family has lost.

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