Spotlight on Law Enforcement and Autism

Reginald “Neli” Latson is a 19-year-old African-American male who was diagnosed with autism and pervasive development disorder when he was 13-years-old. On May 24, 2010, he was arrested and charged in the state of Virginia, with the malicious wounding of an officer. Reginald was sitting on the grass in front of the Porter Library, a place he often frequented. Students from a nearby elementary school notified the police about a “suspicious man in the area, possibly carrying a gun.”  The callers later admitted that they never actually saw a gun. Reginald did not have a gun and had no previous criminal history. After receiving the call, law enforcement officials placed eight schools on lockdown and initiated a manhunt of the person who fit their description. Apparently, Reginald fit this description. Thomas Calverly, a 56-year-old school resource officer, approached Reginald and asked for his name. According to Calverly, Reginald walked away, and a scuffle ensued between them. Calverly received lacerations to his head and a broken ankle, and Reginald was placed under arrest and sent to the Rappohannock County Jail.

In a video disposition, Reginald claims that the officer was harassing him and making racial slurs. This was disputed by the officer, so we don’t know if this is true. His trial lasted three days and a Stafford County jury found him guilty of two felony counts of assault and battery of an enforcement officer, and two misdemeanors related to the case. The jury also recommended a ten-year sentence. His sentencing will take place on May 19, 2011.

Many parents who have children with autism have had similar experiences. In many instances, citizens with autism or other related disorders come into contact with officers when they are victims of a crime, or when they’ve wandered away from home. When their paths cross in other circumstances, things often become more serious.

In March 2010, Steven Eugene Washington, a 27-year-old African-American man with autism, was shot and killed by two Los Angeles gang-enforcement police officers when police claimed he was “glancing around suspiciously and pulling something from his waist band.”

In May, 2010, Clifford Grevemberg, an 18-year-old African-American boy with autism and a heart condition, was standing outside a restaurant in Tybee Island, Georgia waiting for his brother when he was approached by police officers. By the time his brother exited the restaurant, Clifford had been tasered, handcuffed, and had a broken tooth. The officers arrested him for disorderly conduct, but later dropped the charges when his brother informed them of his condition.

Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S. and now affects 1 out of 110 children and 1 in 70 boys. With these numbers in mind, law enforcement officers need to be able to make a distinction between a person who has autism, and someone who does not. They should receive training on how to approach a person with autism in order to achieve the safest outcome for all parties involved. More importantly, however, they need sufficient knowledge and training in order make an on-the-spot diagnosis. For example, an autistic person may not make eye contact with an officer, or may repeat commands in a way that it sounds like they are mocking the officer.

I’d like to believe that police officers have good intentions and are able to make morally sound decisions when dealing with the public. Police departments across the country are taking steps to both protect the community as well as the impaired individual. The International Association of Chiefs of Police made interactions with individuals with autism their main topic of discussion during their 2010 summit.

In April of 2008, the LAPD announced a partnership with the Los Angeles Chapter of the Autism Society of America. They’ve developed a training program to raise awareness of officers of how to better understand Autism Spectrum Disorders and how to deal with an autistic person in the field. The training is for those who have extensive dealings with the mentally ill, and is also part of police officer academy training, the Crisis Intervention Technique Course, Watch Commanders School, Supervisors School and Senior Lead Officer School. Officers are also required to take an online course on autism.

The El Dorado Sheriff’s department in California has a registry for its autistic residents. They’ve also created a website for parents and caregivers to provide information about their loved ones. According to the department’s training officer, this information helps them to more effectively handle encounters with individuals who are nonverbal or responding uncommonly as a result of their disability.

In New Jersey, an organization called SNAP, (Special Needs Athletic Programs) offers training for township police and first responders on how to deal with emergency calls involving people with autism. For example, as part of the informative training program, they outline the three main challenges in dealing with people with autism in an emergency situation:

  • Many will not respond to their name
  • Heightened reactions to sensory input
  • Difficulty understanding multiple directions from emergency personnel

Finally, Dennis Debbaudt, a professional investigator, law enforcement trainer, and father of a young man with autism, was the first person to address the interactions between law enforcement and people with autism in his 1994 report: Avoiding Unfortunate Situations. In the report, he provides information on how families can avoid negative police interactions, how people with autism should act with law enforcement, as well as training resources for police, paramedics, fire, and hospital staff. Here is a clip from one of his training videos:

I don’t know how effective these programs are, or how good the content is, but I hope and pray that at some point in the future, each and every public servant will get the training they need to understand and properly deal with autistic citizens.

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