A recent Virginia case in which an teenager with Asperger’s was sentenced by jury to ten-and-a-half years in prison for assaulting a police officer is a horrible tragedy for all concerned.
News accounts reported that the teen went to the library, but finding it closed, sat down outside on the grass. It was pointed out that the teen happens to be black and nearby school children became afraid and complained to the school crossing guard, saying that he might have a gun. Police were then summoned.
A single officer approached the teen, checked him for a gun and found no weapon. He then asked his name several times with no response. Because the teen wouldn’t tell the officer his name, he grabbed the youth by the arm and threw him over the top of his car in order to cuff him while declaring him under arrest. A struggle ensued and the teen caused injuries to the officer.
This is a terribly disturbing case on many levels. The officer is himself the father of mentally challenged thirty-three year old and on that basis, was said to be highly sensitive of those with developmental disabilities. However, an officer experienced with autism would not expect their subjects to answer all questions asked or find the need to suddenly grab and arrest them. Why was there no call for back-up?
So basically, a young man with autism was sitting outside a library waiting for it to open and then a short while later, an officer is injured from a struggle and now a young man faces over a decade behind bars.
This is the latest in a series of avoidable tragedies, including the wrongful deaths of two young adults with autism in Los Angeles. All of the cases share the fact that the suspects were committing no crimes, but failed to respond properly to police commands. The concerning element is without proper training and awareness, the number of these cases are going to expand exponentially as more and more children with autism grow into young adults.
Because the teen had another incident on his record, the prosecutor maintained that he was wasn’t impaired by autism, but rather is an innately aggressive and dangerous person. The fact that the jury bought this parsing of conditions is not good news for anyone.
In a previous article, I advocated for a voluntary autism registry, but that is a distant goal that requires a great deal of work and effort, even after communities agree that it’s needed. I am now thinking that teens and young adults with autism should carry visible medical alert indicators such as a bracelet or necklace to notify officers of their condition and provide an emergency cell phone number of a caregiver.
Of course, the need for more officer training in autism is only amplified by these heartbreaking turn of events.
One of the premier organizations that offers autism training for officers is run by Dennis Debbaudt. Dennis is an ex-law enforcement official, father of a son with autism and the founder of Autism Risk and Safety Management. We interviewed him a few years ago and he provided some great insight into this emerging problem and what is being done to address it.
While his organization is doing a tremendous job, much more effort is needed by others to address this growing problem so these types of incidents are minimized or completely eliminated in the future.