An off-duty police officer is walking free after shooting and killing a disabled man at a Los Angeles area Costco over the weekend. The victim, Kenneth French, was a 32-year-old nonverbal man with an unspecified intellectual disability who was at the store with his parents — his dedicated caretakers, due to the challenges he would face if he lived independently. Communities and legislators should honor French’s life by demanding protection and justice for disabled persons who are at risk for fatal police encounters.
French’s parents, Paola and Russell French, were also hit by gunfire and sustained critical injuries in the altercation. Both parents were taken to the ICU following the shooting. The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday that Paola French was in a coma. French’s cousin, Rick Shureih, described to the paper that Kenenth was “gentle giant.” His mental capacity was that of a teenager. “He’s never been violent in the past,” said Shureih. “He’s always been very cooperative and kept to himself.”
Kenneth was shopping with his parents when he encountered the armed, off-duty LAPD officer, who was there with his young child. It’s unclear what went down, but police reports had initially described the incident as an argument between two men that ended in the fatal shooting; the shooter was initially detained in the store and was taken to the hospital after sustaining minor injuries. Following the initial police reports, subsequent updates indicated that no one had been taken into custody for the murder. LAPD officers are permitted to carry their firearms while off the clock.
Investigators are currently looking for witnesses to the altercation to determine what exactly happened and why — or even if — the off-duty cop had felt that French, as well as his parents, posed a mortal threat to him or his child. Shureih proactively disputed this possibility, posting a photo of the family on social media. “Do they look intimidating to you? Did he really have to shoot them all? I’m posting this picture because the stories on social media have made them out to be the suspects, and the off duty cop the victim.”
Other Recent High-Profile Deaths
French’s story is just one of many. Disabled persons face fatal encounters with law enforcement when officers are unable to truly assess the situation and threat level. High-profile cases over the past few years have shown that officers lack life-saving training that would allow them to adapt to a suspect’s needs and abilities, and that they are also not actively listening to the community members who are acting as guardians for their disabled peers, friends, family members, and neighbors.
In 2017 Magdiel Sanchez, a deaf man with developmental disabilities was shot and killed in front of his home after he did not comply with two police officers’ verbal orders to get on the ground — despite the fact that his neighbors were trying to explain to the cops that he could not hear them. “We were screaming that he can’t hear,” one witness told the Oklahoman. “The guy does movements. He don’t speak, he don’t hear, mainly it is hand movements. That’s how he communicates. I believe he was frustrated trying to tell them what was going on.”
In 2013, Robert Saylor, a young man with Down’s Syndrome, was strangled by police officers after watching a movie at a theater with a caretaker. The theater called in security when a non-compliant Saylor tried to stay for another viewing of the film. His caretaker told the security officers — three off-duty sheriff’s deputies — that Saylor did not like to be touched and would not be able to handle a physical altercation; the deputies disregarded this condition, and ultimately killed Saylor. The officers were cleared of all charges, but the state of Maryland (where the killing took place) became the first state in the country to implement a disability training program for law enforcement in 2018 to prevent future tragedy and of abuses of power.