Ruben Solis was walking home from his daughter’s house in Waxahachie when Ellis County deputies approached him. They were responding to a call about a disturbance in the area and said they smelled alcohol on him.
Solis told deputies he has Huntington’s disease, a progressive brain disorder that causes uncontrolled movements and a decline in thinking and reasoning. At some point, Solis tried to walk away.
That’s when they detained him.
“Within three minutes, they were on top of him — beating him, handcuffing him, arresting him — while he was in a pool of blood gasping, ‘I can’t breathe,'” Wayne Krause Yang said.
Yang is one of Solis’ lawyers. Texas Standard spoke with Yang about the case last month. He said the deputies gave Solis a black eye, dislocated his thumb and caused bruising to his ribs and kidney during the arrest.
“He said he had Huntington’s disease and yet the deputies had no idea what that was or how to treat it,” Yang said. “In the end, that led directly to the fact that instead of trying to accommodate him or learn more about it, they ended up using force against him and arresting him.”
Ellis County Sheriff Chuck Edge disputes Yang’s account. Edge said Solis had the ability to comply with orders and that his injuries were self-inflicted.
“He may not have complete control of all of the physical and mental faculties,” Edge said. “But that would not keep him from complying with the deputy’s commands to stay still, come back here, those types of things.”
He said deputies only took Solis to the ground and handcuffed him when he tried to walk away.
After his arrest, Solis took action. With help from the Texas Legal Services Center, he filed a lawsuit against Ellis County which claimed the deputies violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I filed this lawsuit because [the] Ellis County Sheriff’s Department really abused me, and I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Solis said in a recording.
Since Huntington’s is a progressive disease, his attorneys said Solis isn’t able to give interviews anymore.
One of those lawyers, Yang, works on the impact litigation team at Texas Legal Services Center. It’s a legal team dedicated to making systemic changes, rather than seeking monetary settlements from lawsuits.
Through an open records request, the team found there was no disability training within the Ellis County Sheriff’s Department. But Sheriff Edge said some training was already in place.
“I actually am certified by TCOLE, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement,” Edge said. “I’m a required person to be in one of the classes that we teach that has to talk about disabilities because I myself have a disability. So we teach everything that’s required by TCOLE to maintain our license and to maintain our professionalism.”
However, as a condition to dropping the lawsuit, the department agreed to receive additional training through The Arc of Texas.
Alex Cogan is the public policy and advocacy manager at The Arc. She said it’s important for officers to be trained on disabilities because of how much they differ from person-to-person.
“If you’ve met one person with a disability, you’ve met one person with a disability. It looks different for everyone,” she said. “Autism, for example, is a spectrum. So you’ve got people who are autistic savants who are incredibly brilliant, but might have poor social skills. And then you’ve also got individuals with autism who are nonverbal and who might also have physical characteristics as well that differentiate them.”
Cogan said The Arc of Texas’ training focuses on four areas: identifying disabilities, communication, accommodations and support.
“We’re talking about things like adjusting that communication style, adjusting your physical presence,” Cogan said. “They may use communication devices or have communication cards that you should be aware of, and they may have things like comfort items that you don’t want to remove from that individual because it may exacerbate a situation.”
Ellis County is also bringing in licensed mental health professionals to train and certify 25 “Mental Health Deputies” who are specially- trained in crisis intervention. The program is designed to help divert those who need behavioral health services from hospitals and jails to community-based alternatives.
Edge said he has done some reflecting since the incident with Ruben Solis and is paying attention to ongoing protests against police brutality. He said he’s always open to more training for his officers, but doesn’t like law enforcement being painted as the bad guys.
“It gets us more upset than probably anybody,” Edge said. “We don’t condone the actions of the bad officers, but we also don’t condone being lumped in to all of the negative notoriety, if you will.”
Roughly 30,000 people with disabilities live in Ellis County, including Ruben Solis. He said he’s proud of standing up for his rights and making his community safer.
“Ellis County is going to be a better, safer place for people who have disabilities,” he said.