Like many of you, I’ve been consumed by the news of the shooting death of an unarmed man with intellectual disabilites at a Southern California Costco last Friday evening . Salvador Sanchez, the off- duty officer who shot and killed 32-year-old Kenneth French and critically injured his parents is claiming through his attorney he acted in self-defense after being pushed in what is being called an unprovoked attack.
There are many things I don’t know about this tragedy, many details that have yet to emerge as eyewitness accounts are gathered and security footage is reviewed.
But here’s what I do know:
An unarmed, non-verbal man with an intellectual disability is dead.
And the guy who did it is probably going to get away with it.
Kenneth’s parents, who were with him at Costco that night to purchase food for an upcoming Father’s Day celebration, tried to intervene and diffuse the situation and were also shot.
French’s mom is currently in a coma, and his dad is slowly recovering from the injuries he sustained.
And my community of special needs families is reeling.
Parents raising individuals with intellectual disabilities have many things in common, but one of the most exhausting common denominators among us is the constant fear about the safety and well-being of our children.
We fear they will be shunned, discriminated against, forgotten, hurt, abandoned, abused. We are scared for their present and paranoid about their future. So we invest in therapies and specialists and pour over cutting edge research in the hopes of finding a miracle. We beg our schools and our doctors and our insurance companies for help. We spend hours in waiting rooms and IEP meetings and social skills groups. We fill prescriptions and fill out assessments and we welcome behavior interventionists into our lives and into our homes and into the darkest parts of our hearts where doubt and anxiety and powerlessness resides.
Eventually, we take everything we’ve learned as a family, everything our children have diligently practiced over and over in the privacy and relative safety of our homes, and we dare venture out into our communities and risk being made to feel unwelcome in our local churches and parks and grocery stores because we know even the tiniest of triumphs pave the way for a better future for our loved ones and so we ignore the stares and the judgmental nods and make space for our sons and our daughters because this is their world too.
And then we hear about the tragic death of Kenneth French and suddenly being made to feel unwelcome by society is the very least of our fears and we retreat back into the confines of our homes and check the locks a few extra times and wonder how we’ll ever let our children out again.
I can’t stop thinking about his parents. About the moment his dad tried in vain to alert Officer Sanchez that his son had a disability. The moment he was doing what any one of us would do in a heartbeat if it were our kid.
And I can’t stop thinking that it wasn’t enough.
I think about my Andrew, about his struggles, his lack of understanding of personal space, his behavioral challenges that emerge when he is overwhelmed and unable to communicate his feelings. I have always clung naively to the comforting knowledge he would never venture out into public alone, that he would always have us to guide him, support him, and diffuse any potential misunderstandings or confrontations.
Just like Kenneth did.
And now I know it isn’t enough.
When an officer of the law – with his extensive training in deescalating difficult and dangerous situations – something that separates him from civilians and allows him to carry a concealed weapon in the first place – ignores the pleas of two desperate parents begging for understanding and chooses instead to reach for his weapon and kill an unarmed man with intellectual disabilities, we are forced to consider that the very worst thing in the world could happen to any one of us.
We are all Kenneth French’s parents.
I see the photo of them circulating on the internet, the three of them posing near Universal Studios. I wonder if Russell, Paola and Kenneth planned to have their clothes match that day, the blue hues complimenting one another. Their faces are happy, their body language relaxed. They had no way of knowing then how poignant this picture would be in painting the lives they were leading together.
We are all Kenneth French’s parents.
We are all just trying our best to give our children opportunities to engage in our communities, THEIR communities, all the while guiding them, supporting them, and hoping for the best.
And every single one of us would undoubtedly do whatever it takes to protect our vulnerable children.
Including trying to get between them and a trigger-happy officer who fails to listen to reason and shoots to kill instead.
We just shouldn’t have to.