Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Police Rough Up Autistic Teen

I haven't been able to find this news story online yet, but it ran on the local t.v. news last night:

A seventeen year old boy, who is both autistic and mute, wandered out of his home. A young woman home alone with her two young children saw him in her yard, and frightened, called the police to report that a black man was prowling around her house. When the police arrived, they shouted orders at the kid, which, of course, he couldn't understand. Apparently, he resisted and he ended up with a broken elbow, a head injury, several tazer burns, and was pepper sprayed.

The parents, or at least this boy's father, was surprisingly calm about the incident, but he is insisting that police must get more training on recognizing and dealing with those with mental disabilities. They showed this kid on t.v., and he appears to be more severely disabled than my student -- he can't talk at all, for one thing. He just sat there with a rather pleasant smile on his face, making the little hand movements which are common among autistics. He clearly has no clue about why this happened to them.

My own autistic student wouldn't have understood, either, if the same had happened to him -- I spent a rather foolish fifteen minutes trying to get him to come down off of the playground equipment (one of those big structures that has slides, climbing poles, etc.) because of complaints that he was pushing other students. He just insisted "I not bad", while I hung around down below looking like an idiot. (Unlike police, teachers can't, and shouldn't, wrestle a kid to the ground.) In the end, he still didn't understand why he was in trouble, and I realized that I had made a mistake in how I handled the situation.

The sad thing is that, according to their training, the police did the "right" thing. If a suspect does not respond, then you use physical force to subdue him -- the least physical force that will still be effective. If I have understood correctly, no one, even the boy's parents, are accusing the police of deliberate brutality; the kid must have resisted arrest rather forcefully, although, of course, he had no idea what being arrested meant.

There is a famous police training video called "Shoot; don't shoot", which trainees are supposed to watch realistic situations, and in a split second decide whether or not they should shoot. In one of the scenarios, a man keeps walking towards the camera, not responding at all to orders to freeze or stop -- then he reaches into his coat. But, instead of a weapon, he brings out a wallet containing a note explaining that he is a deaf-mute. But the "right" thing for the officer to do in that situation is -- shockingly enough -- to shoot. The man wasn't responding to orders; he reached into his clothes and it was very likely he had a gun. In real life, it would have been a tragic mistake, but a cop who *didn't* shoot in that situation could easily wind up dead. It's no easy matter to distinguish between a suspect who deliberately doesn't respond, and one that is not capable of responding. I don't know if further training would improve that situation or not. Jim said that the police are likely to decide that a suspect who is behaving oddly is on drugs; it wouldn't occur to most to assess mental condition.

If I can find the story online later, I'll link to it.

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