Protests began on Thursday after 16-year-old Nathaniel Julius was shot by police in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. According to his family, Nathaniel, who had Down’s Syndrome, had gone to the local store for some food and was shot on his way home because he did not respond immediately to police questioning. This was due to the nature of his disability. He was taken to hospital, where he later died because of his injuries, according to Aljazeera. The community then protested, calling for reform in the local police executive, and the arrest of the police officers involved in the shooting.
Gauteng Premier David Makhura told TimesLIVE that Nathaniel had been caught in the crossfire between police and gang members, however, the family and local community dispute this. There are accusations of a cover-up, as eyewitnesses interviewed by eNCA reported seeing police tampering with the crime scene by covering up bloodstains with soil in the area. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) has launched an investigation, and two police officers involved in the incident have since been arrested. Police Minister Bheki Cele visited the family and spoke with the community, saying that “Whoever committed the crime will face the law, it doesn’t matter who that person is,” reported Soweto Urban.
These protests are not the first demands for change around police brutality in South Africa. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began there have been numerous reports of police brutality used to enforce lockdown measures. David Bruce, an independent expert on South African policing, told Aljazeera that despite the lack of clarity around the circumstances of this shooting, nothing justifies the murder of an innocent young boy. He made comparisons to other police shootings during lockdown, including that of 19-year-old Tyrone Moeng. Human rights groups in South Africa, such as the Foundation of Human Rights in Johannesburg, have also condemned the extremity of the police response here.
Unfortunately, disabled people make up a large proportion of police shootings worldwide. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, between one third and one half of police killings in the US are made up of people with a disability. In 2018, 22-year-old Adam Trammell was tasered by police in his shower because he did not immediately move after police prompting and later died because of his injuries and forced ingestion of sedatives. According to his father, Adam took showers to help ground himself during hallucinations caused by schizophrenia, and likely thought that the police were part of a hallucination, reported BBC. In Palestine this year, Eyad Hallaq, who was at the severe end of the autism spectrum, was shot by police after he ran and hid behind a bush because they had been shouting at him. This was despite his carer telling police that he was disabled and could not understand them, according to Forbes.
All of these cases come down to an unacceptable police response when faced with non-compliance, with violence being their first tactic. Haben Girma, a lawyer and activist that spoke to TIME, said that this was part of a “compliance culture” common in police departments – “Anyone who immediately doesn’t comply, the police move on to force.” This becomes a problem when someone does not understand police orders and then does not immediately comply in a way they expect. Violence should not be the first tactic when dealing with these cases. Police need proper training to recognize someone who has a disability or has difficulty understanding them. Otherwise, they cannot fulfill their role as protectors of peace.
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