Trigger Warning: Unexplained death in police custody, fear
The epidemic of deaths in police custody is infecting South Carolina
“People are being treated unjustly because of mental illness. For a traffic violation, my son is dead.”
Lavell Na’Jay Lane was 29. A young Black man, he was originally from Brooklyn, NY, and graduated as valedictorian of his high school. He went to Howard University and ran on the track team, where he received a full scholarship for his excellence in the sport. He went to a Pentecostal church. He was loved by his family and friends. He is loved.
Lavell was a member of our disability community, having a mental illness. He was described by his family as “a young man finding his way.” He had been in South Carolina for 15 days.
Police reports state that on the night of Oct. 2 he was found walking in the roadway. He was quickly arrested for being a “pedestrian in the street.” He ran from police but later surrendered with hands raised, telling officers he ran because he “was scared.” He was taken to the Spartanburg County Detention Center. A few hours later, at 5:04 in the morning, he was pronounced dead by the Spartanburg County Coroner. The Sheriff’s Department chose only to release his mugshot. Neither the public nor his family knows why or how he died. Lavell’s father, Andy Reese, told news outlets, “People are being treated unjustly because of mental illness. For a traffic violation, my son is dead.”
As people with disabilities, we know this story. We know that people with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities, and other misunderstood disabilities are harmed by and die at the hands of police. This is especially true for Black disabled people. In the United States, 50 percent of people killed by law enforcement are disabled. More than half of disabled Black Americans have been arrested by the time they turn 28. That is more than double the risk of their white disabled counterparts. This epidemic of violence in police custody, whether that is acts of physical and emotional brutality or neglect, is here in our state and in our small towns.
As an organization that is led by people with disabilities– we are calling to end this now. We are tired of seeing dehumanizing mugshots being used to stigmatize Black disabled people. These mugshots lack the stories of family, love, and community. We are tired of seeing news of our death and harm in the media, showcasing how police lack the skills to appropriately protect Black disabled lives.
Our state’s disabled population is higher than the national average, with 1.3 million South Carolinians having disabilities. That means 1.3 million of us are at higher risk of harm at the hands of police. Of the disability community in South Carolina, 33.6% of people with disabilities are Black, which doubles the risk of arrest.
We echo calls for transparency and accountability, and we deserve more than that. We deserve to live. But in the case of Lavell Lane, he did not get that opportunity. This opportunity is missing because the state’s systems are ill-equipped to fully understand the needs of all people with disabilities. These systems refuse to understand how police use-of-force and lack of accountability is both a racial justice issue and a disability justice issue. Disabled people are tired of being afterthoughts in training, services, and proper community supports. We are tired of not being seen as valuable.
We support the family of Lavell Lane’s call for justice. Justice for Lavell means telling his family the full truth about what led to his arrest and death. Justice for Lavell means sharing any video footage or audio recordings that can tell them about what happened to their son. Justice for Lavell means giving the family space to talk with the arresting officer and officers on duty.
As an organization that is led by people with disabilities, we call for disability justice. Lawmakers must step up to change the system and stop this from ever happening again. The state must understand that people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted due to ableism, and other forms of oppression, and efforts must be put in place to provide appropriate supports to save lives. Our lives are worth living.