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Dangerous Encounters: Interactions Between Autistic Individuals and Law Enforcement

by Casey J. Bastian

“Having an encounter with police … is an unsettling encounter for anybody, but for someone with autism, it can be extremely distressing.”


Helen Lyons, Metropolitan Police Detective Superintendent, Adults Neglected, Vulnerable and Abused Division

Anyone who has experienced even a simple traffic stop understands the anxiety inherent in these encounters. A typical person finds them nerve-wracking. The slightest deviation can trigger an officer, often trained to dominate and control a situation. But what happens to an atypical person? Like someone with a condition falling on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (including Autism and Asperger’s syndrome) (“ASD”) who cannot discern “normal” interactive behaviors. These individuals can appear to be deliberately disobeying and triggering the officer. And that simple misunderstanding is what can lead to tragedies in otherwise benign encounters.

“I’m Just Different”

In 2019, Elijah McClain walked to the corner grocery store near his home to purchase iced tea. McClain worked as a massage therapist. He was described by his family and friends “as a gentle and kind introvert who volunteered to play his violin to comfort cats at an animal shelter.”

As he was walking back to his Aurora, Colorado, home, McClain didn’t know that someone had called 911 to report a “sketchy” person. McClain was wearing a ski mask. It wasn’t cold, and the pandemic had not made face coverings common yet. McClain was anemic. Two officers responded and wanted to know why McClain was wearing a ski mask. The officers invaded McClain’s personal space and peppered him with questions.

Confused, McClain could only think to ask the officers to “respect his boundaries.” They didn’t. Instead, the encounter quickly escalated because the officers perceived his demeanor as one of resistance and non-compliance. McClain quickly found himself being rendered unconscious from a violent chokehold. Then the paramedics arrived.

He was being violently restrained and choked. McClain was struggling, vomiting and declaring that he couldn’t breathe. The paramedics then injected an excessive dose of the powerful sedative ketamine. The amount was much greater than someone of McClain’s stature is to receive. Five people tasked with public safety stood there while McClain died. McClain spent his last moments on Earth scared and confused.

One of the last things McClain uttered was a plea for empathy: “I’m just different.” He did not receive any empathy from the law enforcement officers or the paramedics. Instead, he was forced to endure a lethal dose of ketamine. No one cared that McClain was not an actual criminal or that he was a neurodivergent human being with autism. His only crime was being “different,” and for that, he paid the ultimate price.

The men responsible would be criminally charged in response to the subsequent public outrage. However, as of the date of this article, only one person has been convicted in connection with McClain’s death – Randy Roedema for negligent homicide and assault.A civil lawsuit was settled for $15 million, and laws banning chokeholds and restricting the use of ketamine enacted. But McClain’s family does not have the one thing they would trade everything else for: Elijah alive. Efforts continue to ensure McClain didn’t die in vain. And such efforts are badly needed because McClain is not alone. Although not always deadly, incidents of excessive force and injury occur way more often than you’d think and far more frequently than is acceptable.

Diminished Legitimacy of Criminal Justice System

The discussion here is about the injustices regarding all aspects of the Criminal Justice System (“CJS”) that people with ASD conditions face. From minor interactions and encounters to arrests, interrogations, court proceedings, and imprisonment, autistic individuals often endure worse outcomes and experiences than their neurotypical counterparts. For everyone’s safety, it is necessary for the police to understand the perspectives of people with ASD conditions and their parents or care providers when interacting with the CJS.

Policy changes addressing issues such as “systemic identification of autism among police detainees” as well as “widespread autism awareness training for police officers, the judiciary, and other legal professionals” are urgently needed. We must understand how autistic people “navigate the CJS and whether their support needs are met.” This is not limited to the U.S.; this is a worldwide problem. Tragedies can, and have, happened in many countries.

Historically, the U.S. CJS provides frequent cause for outrage and calls for reform or better training when someone is unnecessarily harmed during mundane interactions. This result is more common in the vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed communities – minorities, the poor, the addicted, and the different – the very communities that should receive the greatest protection are often the most victimized.

As a result, there is frequent focus and study of both the public’s perception of, and satisfaction with, the CJS. The macro focus is on police and prosecutors generally – how people’s perspectives and experiences impact their trust of and cooperation with these actors. Recent years have once again brought increased scrutiny and extreme dissatisfaction (resulting in undermined trust) with the U.S. CJS.

This diminishes its legitimacy in the view of the general public. This is because legitimacy is “a property of an authority that leads people to feel that the authority or institution is entitled to be deferred to and obeyed.” This is gained or lost through interactions with the public, either personal or vicariously. The legitimacy of the CJS is generally measured by four elements: (1) citizen participation in the outcome of the interaction; (2) how police choose what to do during an interaction; (3) are citizens respected in the interactions; and (4) is it fair and is everyone treated equally.

The more satisfied people are with all four elements, the more they view the CJS as being legitimate. Unfortunately, research reveals that CJS interactions generally result in negative experiences with police by all members of the public. And autistic individuals and their parents or care providers are generally even less likely to view the CJS as legitimate and fair than their neurotypical counterparts due to the frequency of needlessly violent and disrespectful encounters.

Individuals within the neurodivergent community comprise one type of frequently abused group. There have been multiple, high-profile encounters involving the police, the neurodivergent, and preventable injury or death – each heart-wrenching. These incidents contribute to the hardening view of many Americans that our law enforcement personnel are in dire need of much greater training, oversight, and accountability. Each incident contributes to the worsening legitimacy crisis regarding the CJS in America.

“What we’ve been trained to do in high-stress tactical situations is go to that next step to bring greater control. But authoritative behavior that works for neurotypical people doesn’t work for autistic people,” said Rob Zink, an officer with the St. Paul, Minnesota, police department. Police react to the behaviors of neurodiverse or autistic people as suspicious, belligerent, and/or dangerous. The individual’s natural behaviors, traits, and characteristics often lead to those persons being arrested and physically or emotionally traumatized. Zink has partnered with the Autism Society of Minnesota to create the training program Cops Autism Response Education (“CARE”) project to increase awareness among police officers about ASD conditions.

Though there is research on the general public’s perception of police and CJS legitimacy, very little research has focused on police training and tactics for interacting with autistic individuals. And almost no research has been conducted on the experiences, fears, and perceptions of the parents or care providers of autistic individuals. More concerning is the dearth of research on the opinions and perceptions of autistic individuals themselves. Their perspectives would logically be the most pertinent but are largely absent from the relevant discussions of these issues.

One could easily imagine how such knowledge could assist with improving law enforcement training. It took the death of McClain for most police departments to even recognize that training is needed to avoid such tragedies in the future. However, only minor efforts, amounting to little more than symbolism, are being made in officer awareness and training initiatives. In the April following McClain’s death, across the U.S., police officers placed special patches on their uniforms, and police departments covered patrol vehicles in brightly-colored puzzle pieces to support Autism Awareness.

Since then, the puzzle piece symbol of Autism Awareness has fallen out of vogue. This symbol has been replaced with the rainbow infinity symbol. Some advocates felt the puzzle piece symbol was dehumanizing; individuals with an ASD condition are a whole human being, not a “confusing puzzle” to be figured out.

The New York Police Department had its first Autism Awareness Day four years ago, and the display vehicle was covered in slogans and puzzle pieces. By 2022, the image was rebranded, and the vehicle now is adorned with the rainbow infinity symbol. Many feel these gestures are devoid of any significance and are simply a way to placate critics without really doing anything to help address the issue. Some still believe that using the preferred language and symbols to decorate police vehicles is meaningless when the overall CJS is still “incompatible with the neurodiverse paradigm.”

A Need to Understand: What Is Autism?

Considering the prevalence of unnecessarily dangerous encounters between autistic people and the police, there is a pressing need for all law enforcement personnel to understand what autism is and how it affects citizen-police encounters. “It could be the confrontation with a stranger, or the idea of physical contact that triggers an adverse, nervous reaction in that person and potentially escalate the situation,” observed Lyons. “Officers currently have no way of knowing whether someone has autism, a condition which may explain their behavior.” It is not just law enforcement personnel who are unfamiliar with neurodivergent persons and how to reliably identify them. Ask yourself how much you really know. Can you quickly identify an autistic person and attribute any unusual behavior to the condition? This knowledge is where prevention and change will begin.

The American Psychiatric Association defines autism as a “neurological developmental disorder” resulting in marked differences in social, motor, and communication skills, as well as intellectual disabilities, attention difficulties, and sleep pattern issues as compared to their neurotypical counterparts. Autism was first classified as a “spectrum disorder” in 2013 with the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (“DSM”), Fifth Edition. It is classified as a spectrum disorder due to the volume and range of possible associated traits as well as the distinct subtypes of disorders.

Some can have minor abnormal traits and characteristics and be considered “high-functioning,” needing little assistance to live in a typical community setting. Others must be supervised constantly and cannot be left alone at any age. It is also quite common for people with autism to engage in repetitive patterns of behavior. Though autistic individuals can exhibit highly advanced skills in art or music, too.

The observable traits and characteristics of autism can include: (1) repetitive speech of motions – e.g., echolalia (the often-pathological repetition of what is said by other people as if echoing them), hand-flapping, pacing, or rocking; (2) issues with sensory perception or sensitivity – e.g., extreme discomfort with being touched, phonophobia (intolerance of unfamiliar sounds); and/or (3) photophobia – intolerance or painful sensitivity to strong light. Those with ASD conditions may also lack impulse control, exacerbating a lack of focus or an inability to execute tasks requested by police.

The social and communication deficits of the autistic include trouble with verbalizing, difficulty making or maintaining direct eye contact, and difficulty understanding verbal instructions or facial expressions. These traits and characteristics of an autistic person vary greatly. The number and presentation of these characteristics and traits are as unique as the individual. According to autism advocate Dr. Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Many autistic people develop self-soothing techniques when faced with overwhelming circumstances. One such technique is known as “stimming”. It is any repetitive act that is used to calm down and manage their stress. The act can be slapping their hands against their knees, rubbing hands together quickly, or even banging their head on the floor or wall. This can seem very odd to the untrained. Many police officers would view this behavior as indicative of drug use or mental health crisis. However, it is actually a trait police officers can look for and find useful in interacting with persons with an ASD condition.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 5.4 million adults in the U.S. are on the autism spectrum or approximately 2.2 percent of the population. Autism impacts all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, but minority groups tend to receive inaccurate or late diagnoses. Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed as autistic. However, research suggests that girls may not show autism in the same manner as boys and thus remain undiagnosed as a result. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world. As of 2023, the prevalence of autism in the U.S. is approximately 1 in 36 children; its prevalence has increased by 6 to 15 percent each year from 2002 to 2020.

Statistics indicate that in the U.S. nearly 20 percent of autistic individuals will be stopped and questioned by the police, while five percent will be arrested by 21-years-of-age. A 2001 article entitled “Contact with Individuals with Autism” observed that an autistic person is “seven times more likely to encounter law enforcement than those without ASD.” A 2008 study found that 80 percent of all U.S. law enforcement officers “could not identify autism characteristics.”

A 2016 report noted similar findings concerning prison staff in the U.S. The American Journal of Criminal Justice found prison staff fail “to recognize the autistic characteristics of inmates to a high degree.” These facts demonstrate the need for criminal justice personnel to receive training on improving the recognition of and responses to autistic individuals. Comprehensive training will necessarily result in more positive and appropriate outcomes.

Frequent Encounters

As the McClain incident highlights, because the behaviors of autistic persons are considered to be “inconsistent with dominant social norms” or deviate from a police officers’ typical expectations, encounters can quickly turn tragic. Police failing to recognize “autistic-prevalent” behaviors are likely to interpret these acts as resistance, responding with suspicion or excessive force. “If you have 50 hours of training on how to make sure you’re in control at all times and tackle people, and then four hours of training on dealing with autistic people, you’re not going to be acting on those four hours of training in a crisis,” observed Sam Crane, legal director at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

The response by police to situations involving those with autism goes far beyond allegations of “sketchy” (suspicious) or criminal activity. Most interactions begin as benign requests for assistance. This is not to say that individuals with autism don’t engage in criminal activity. The rate of criminality among the ASD populations is comparable to that of the overall general population. A very small number of those in the ASD category do commits violent crimes.

Often, an autistic person’s crime is something like after having walked into a store, something catches their attention. They then grab the item and place it in their pocket. They might leave the store without paying. That autistic person likely doesn’t even consider either of those actions to be wrong. However, to an observer, their conduct is that of a shoplifter.

And when police arrive, that is all they know to think. It never occurs to them until much too late that the person they are arresting or interrogating is unable to understand what is happening. Clare Hughes is the Criminal Justice Manager at the National Autistic Society and considered such a scenario. “We’ve heard awful stories of anxious behavior being misinterpreted by emergency services and situations escalating quickly,” said Hughes.

In fact, a person with autism is more likely to be in need for assistance as the victim of a crime. This can include bullying, physical and/or sexual abuse, and a “variety of disability-related hate crimes.” A person with autism is “4 to 10 times” more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator. Some experts suggest that “half of affected individuals will not leave home” because they fear being taken advantage of.

It is a sad irony that the deinstitutionalization movement has actually increased the rate at which autistic people are victimized. The movement was one of compassion, intended to remove these individuals from the horrific confines of institutions and place them in a typical community setting. According to the Criminal Journal of Criminal Justice, 82.1 percent have been victimized in the last year – 89 percent in their lifetime.

A 2017 study found that a true community setting – such as the family home – that accommodates a safe and stable living environment contributes to a decrease in abuse; however, such community settings become stressful in adulthood as an autistic person may attempt to live on their own. This is when abuse usually occurs. The difficulty of daily life is compounded by the stresses of unattained societal expectations of appropriate social behavior.

The effects can be devastating. Victimization, especially peer victimization, leads to elevated rates of anxiety and depression. Research also suggests a higher rate of suicide among autistic individuals as compared to non-autistic individuals. Compounding these brutal realities is that when a victimized autistic person interacts with police, their “abnormal” behaviors can create tension and conflict. It is already inherently very difficult for them to explain what happened.

Autistic individuals can also suffer from Substance Use Disorder (“SUD”). They more frequently suffer from SUD due to the many medications prescribed to them for long periods. SUD are more prevalent in the ASD community than the general population.

Those with autism can also suffer from adverse medication reactions that mirror reactions associated with the use of illicit substances. Many with ASD are prescribed very strong anti-psychotic medications to manage behavior or ancillary conditions like anxiety. These drugs can produce complex reactions and strong adverse effects. A mismanaged (or abused) prescription can cause confusion, disorientation, manic reactions, or a sudden crash. Additionally, these reactions can be the result of dietary issues or other medications prescribed, similar to a diabetic missing a dose of insulin and then acting as if suffering from alcohol intoxication.

Police are often called to respond, and the conduct of the autistic individual appears to be the irrational behavior of an illegal drug user. As those with ASD conditions are unable to understand the dangers of misused medications and have communications limitations, it is not surprising adverse reactions to medication misuse occur with ASD patients. Misuse of medications can cause reactions that poorly trained police officers don’t recognize. This leads to poor situational assessment and eventual escalation. Compounding this issue is the reality that having an ASD condition does not eliminate the possibility of illegal drug addiction and related behaviors.

An additional cause of interactions between police and people with ASD conditions is what is referred to as wandering or “elopement.” Nearly 50 percent of parents or care providers acknowledge that a child had eloped by the age of four. In a survey of 1,000 parents or care providers, many admitted to reliance on a deadbolt lock or door alarm – if only to limit the frequency of these wanderings. Research reveals that “individuals with ASD abscond more often than individuals affected by either intellectual disability or a developmental disability alone.” For children with both autism and an intellectual disability, the elopement problem is greatly exacerbated.

A Recipe for Disaster

This tendency to elope is the result of various characteristics: inability to recognize danger, lack of discernment between strangers and familiar individuals, sudden mood changes, and they “tend to over-react to many different situations and people, get angry quickly, panic in the face of change, and get lost quickly.” These relatively unknown personality facets illustrate why people with ASD conditions are at a higher risk of being lost and often have no effective way to communicate. Coupling poor reactions from medications or overstimulation from unfamiliar surroundings and poorly trained first responders attempting to provide assistance can create a recipe for disaster.

Catrina Thompson is the chief of police in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Thompson is also the mother of an autistic child. In their hometown, she doesn’t worry about 16-year-old Christopher. Many people know Christopher, including most of the police force. The officers in her department all received two training sessions on how to interact with autistic individuals. But Thompson still worries for Christopher.

“When I go to Michigan, I’m not chief Thompson. I’m Catrina, and Christopher is not the chief’s son, he’s Christopher,” says Thompson. “In some people’s mind, he just looks like a big Black kid. And that, when coupled with his behaviors, can be intimidating or even scary to an officer who hasn’t been trained.”

The unique perspective of leading a police department and being a mother of an autistic child provides Thompson with some concerning insight. Thompson is very aware of how tragic interactions between police and autistic individuals can become: beatings, violent arrests, and deadly shootings are all too common examples of excessive force used on these vulnerable citizens. The examples are disturbing and too numerous to be excused and tolerated any longer.

“Adolescents and adults with autism may respond inappropriately to questions or commands from a police officer or get agitated, which could then lead to a response from the police officer that could jeopardize the safety of that induvial with ASD,” explained Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens, New York. These examples highlight this observation.

Black autistic teen Troy Canales was beaten and injured by New York City Police Department officers in 2015. His crime? Sitting peacefully outside his home. In 2017, Lindsey Beshai Torres was unable to help her son who was having a serious meltdown. Torres called for an ambulance. What her 10-year-old autistic son received instead was abuse by two Worcester, Massachusetts, police officers. They handcuffed the small child and then knelt on him, causing greater agitation in the boy. In North Carolina, a 7-year-old autistic boy was handcuffed behind his back and pinned face-down by the school’s resource officer for “nearly 40 minutes.” If that isn’t bad enough, the officer was taunting the little boy during the incident.

Who would pepper spray a 9-year-old autistic girl having a mental health crisis? The police officers of Rochester, New York is who. Crying hysterically, handcuffed and pepper sprayed, she asked them to stop. The police response was: “[Y]ou did it to yourself, hon.” So many of these incidents seem to be more than just simple misunderstandings. It is almost as if the police purposefully cause the escalation.

This epidemic is by no means limited to the U.S. In Mississauga, Canada, police responded to a report that there was someone “in a state of undress, attempting to enter a vehicle and a house.” That someone was 19-year-old autistic man Abdullah Darwich. He is also non-verbal. When officers arrived at the scene, they attempted to communicate with Darwich. And of course, that was unsuccessful. So, the officers Tasered Darwich while his father, Majd, witnessed the aftermath.

Majd said he “felt like he was going to have a heart attack,” seeing his son’s bloodied face. Majd was critical of the police for injuring and further traumatizing his son. “They don’t know anything about autism,” lamented Majd. “They just deal with anybody in front of them as a criminal, which is very dangerous.” The police claimed to not know of Darwich’s identity or condition when responding. Darwich is on the local Vulnerable Persons Registry (“VPR”). The VPR “allows the caregivers and/or parents of vulnerable people to submit vital information that will be used by emergency services during a crisis situation.”

The VPR includes a photograph of the person as well as “methods of approach if found.” It did not help Darwich. Police argued that the VPR “is only effective” if they are alerted that the person is on the registry. And they claim that did not happen with Darwich. Officials insist that the matter is under review and the department is “evaluating how we identify and constructively engage people with autism.”

Senior leadership also advised Majd to file a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. A released statement acknowledged that modifications to the VPR and alerts to responding officer are being examined. “I thought when I came to Canada that the police would protect and help him if he ran away from my house,” Majd said. “I never imagined that they would do what they did.”

In July 2016, Charles Kinsey was shot by North Miami SWAT officer Jonathan Aledda as Kinsey lay flat on his back, hands in the air, begging police not to shoot. Aledda claimed he was protecting Kinsey and shot him by accident. “I’m saying, ‘Sir, why did you shoot me?’ and [Aledda’s] words to me were, ‘I don’t know,’” explained Kinsey. So, who did Aledda mean to shoot in an effort to protect Kinsey? That would be Arnoldo Rios Soto, a 26-year-old autistic man with an IQ of around 40. Soto’s communication skills are limited to saying “yes,” echoing what others say, and quoting his favorite movies.

The incident began when Soto left the Miami Achievement Center for the Developmentally Disabled holding a silver toy truck and began walking down the street. Another “concerned citizen” called 911 to report a man with a possible gun. Kinsey had caught up with Soto before police arrived. Soto is a behavioral technician at the center, and Soto is one of his charges. Kinsey told police the silver item was a toy, not a gun. “I’m a behavior tech at the group home. That’s all it is,” Kinsey told the responding officers. Other officers would advise Aledda of this fact as well prior to the shooting.

Just moments later, Kinsey was shot in the hip. Aledda claimed he was trying to protect Kinsey because – despite video showing Kinsey clearly stating it was a toy (and being advised by fellow officers of the same) – Aledda insists he thought the silver toy was a gun. Aledda added that he “accidently” shot Kinsey instead of Soto. Kinsey was bleeding profusely, and Soto was then handcuffed while waiting for paramedics. Soto was left on the ground, handcuffed, for another 20 minutes before being placed in the squad car. Reports reveal that Soto then was forced to sit in the car for nearly three hours while making “animalistic sounds and screeching noises.” Soto was finally taken to the station and interrogated by another officer before being released.

Aledda would eventually be charged with two attempted manslaughter felonies and a misdemeanor culpable negligence charge. The matter would eventually result in a second trial where Aledda was acquitted of the felonies but found guilty on the misdemeanor. Aledda was the first police officer in Miami-Dade County to be charged and convicted since 1989. In fact, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle had never charged an officer in her 24-year career, and she charged Aledda only after a “tidal wave of criticism.”

Eric Parsa was killed by a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (“JPSO”) deputy outside a New Orleans-area laser tag center in January 2020. The 16-year-old Parsa was “severely autistic,” obese, and nonverbal. Suffering from “sensory overload,” Parsa was in the parking lot, distressed and slapping himself on the head. When deputies arrived and approached Parsa, he slapped one of the deputies. What these deputies didn’t know, is that 68 percent of juveniles with an ASD condition are “routinely aggressive with parents, care givers, and teachers.”

Instead of a moderated response, a deputy “wrestled Parsa to the ground, sat on him, and placed him in a chokehold.” Parsa’s parents watched, helpless and unable to intervene, as their son was killed by JPSO deputies. After nine minutes of being choked, an unresponsive Parsa was taken to the local hospital. Parsa was then pronounced dead. The JPSO began seeking exculpatory evidence in Parsa’s background. A warrant was sent to Parsa’s former school asking for records of “all incidents of violence or documented behavioral reports” and specifically all video footage of outbursts or violent behavior. In the face of public outrage, the JPSO tried to defend the warrants as necessary to conduct a full investigation into Parsa’s death.

Legal experts are not convinced. Lusha Blacksher Rainier is a Tulane University Law School professor. Rainier could think of no valid legal justification for these requests. “They knew that they had violated the law and they were trying to find information they could point to that would somehow justify their violation of the law.… That would be my guess.” Whether a plausible justification could be argued from any evidence is a matter of debate, but most people aren’t accepting the premise. “What is the purpose of the police looking into all this information besides trying to come up with a post-hoc justification for why killing this child was appropriate?” said Nora Ahmed, legal director for the ACLU of Louisiana. It does not appear that there is any justification for the JCSO deputies’ conduct.

Linden Cameron was 13-years-old when his mother called 911 for assistance with her autistic son’s breakdown. When Salt Lake City police arrived, their lack of crisis intervention and limited mental health training resulted in an all-too-predictable shooting. The city would eventually settle a lawsuit brought by the Cameron family for $3 million. “This tragic shooting should not have happened. The shooting officer acted recklessly leading up to the moment of the shooting.… They knew Linden was experiencing a mental health crisis and knew that he would run from the officers, yet these officers chased him down and shot him,” according to a post-settlement family statement.

The money will be used for Cameron’s ongoing recovery from his substantial injuries. Cameron still has bullets in his body and nerve problems in his feet and arms. The boy suffers from serious emotional injury as well. “It’s going to be a long road for him to fully recover, if he ever does,” said family attorney Nathan Morris. “He’s a strong kid, though. He is a wonderful kid [and] we’re proud of him.”

Greater Need for True Accountability

The Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training (“CPOST”) is responsible for the licensing of law enforcement officers in Kansas. CPOST also hears complaints and enforces regulatory violations arising from police misconduct. One such complaint reviewed by CPOST was against Jackson County Sheriffs’ Office (“JCSO”) deputy Matthew Honas. He had been a licensed Kansas police officer since August 2006.

In February 2022, Honas responded to a report of a runaway. The runaway child, a 12-year-old known only by the initials L.H., is autistic. Honas had prior interactions with L.H, and was aware that the young boy was autistic. There are allegations of a prior physical struggle with L.H.; there is no dash or bodycam footage of the previous events. Honas was not wearing his bodycam on February 27, 2022, either. The event, however, was recorded by dashcam surveillance.

Honas “shoved [and] elbowed” L.H. as he was placing the boy in the patrol car. L.H. was “hogtied” (this is where a person is handcuffed behind the back, shackled around the ankles, and a chain is run from the ankles to the wrists linking them together). Honas then pushed “pressure points on the boy’s jaw” for no legitimate reason. L.H was then Tasered by Honas despite evidence that L.H. was not “a threat to [Honas] or any other officers.”

The CPOST issued an order of reprimand because Honas “used excessive force multiple times” on L.H. It appears Honas was fired by the JCSO. The issue still concerns citizens of Kansas because Honas still has his certifications as the CPOST refuses to revoke them. This allows Honas to still work as a licensed police officer. What would Honas had to have done for CPOST to revoke the licensure if repeated abuses of a minor autistic child weren’t enough?

Without accountability, autism training for law enforcement officers will ultimately prove to be a futile exercise because they will have no real motive to put these lessons into practice. Autism advocates argue accountability is the most important factor in preventing tragedy. “I want a cop to have to think twice before they act,” said The Color of Autism program director Kim Kaiser. “They should know that the consequences are going to be swift and harsh.”

And as of today, the conduct of Honas and the lack of meaningful sanction by the CPOST epitomize why training without accountability will prove fruitless. Honas isn’t the only example where misconduct did not result in any meaningful accountability.

Even when police are charged and prosecuted, that doesn’t necessarily equal accountability. The Kinsey case is a perfect example. Though there was a finding of guilt at the second trial, it didn’t last. Aledda was awarded a new trial on appeal. If believed, even MDSA Rundle was frustrated as well. “Today’s Appellate decision overturning Jonathan Aledda’s culpable negligence conviction is disappointing to all who believed that this shooting incident was unnecessary and incorrect.” Kinsey himself stated he felt mentally “shaky” and frustrated that he has to deal with this on a daily basis. Kinsey said, “These guys aren’t being held accountable for their actions. He needs to be held accountable. He shouldn’t have a retrial and he should not be reinstated as a police officer at all, period.”

In 2017, Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) Sergeant Khalil Muhammad shot Ricardo “Ricky” Hayes twice after chasing the autistic man down. Muhammad claimed he fired on Hayes because Hayes ran after being approached about possible criminal activity in the area. Muhammad also claimed that during the pursuit, Hayes pulled out a “dark object” that “flipped up in the air” and hit the ground. Muhammad claimed he thought the object was a gun. It wasn’t.

The incident was investigated by the Police Board, and that investigation was analyzed by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (“COPA”). The COPA review revealed that Muhammad had no probable cause to even approach Hayes. Muhammad did not identify himself as a police officer, and there was “no adequate basis to believe” Hayes was armed. The COPA review concluded that the information before the Police Board proved that Muhammad could not have “reasonably believed” Hayes was an “immediate threat” because Muhammad “did not secure the dark object” when Hayes dropped it.

The Police Board determined the shooting was without justification. Pursuant to an agreement between the Police Board and Muhammad, he was required to admit this in exchange for a 180-day suspension. The Police Board, though, refused to recommend the firing of Muhammad. COPA called the incident review by the Police Board a “bureaucratic rubber stamp” that excludes civilian oversight.

University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman said the agreement was “a deal between a superintendent and a sergeant – two police officers – so that a sergeant, who shot a disabled child without justification whatsoever, can keep his gun and CPD badge.” Futterman added, “That shouldn’t make anyone in the city sleep well.”

The Danger Continues While in Custody

Things don’t improve for people with autism even if they manage to survive the encounter with police and end up in custody. Interrogations are extremely stressful, mentally taxing, and can result in false confessions or incorrect information being documented as “facts” to be used against the suspect. And that’s for the neurotypical person. Interrogation methods used by police include the proverbial third-degree – the widely discredited Reid Technique (“I know you’re guilty, and I just need to know why you did it – so don’t deny it!”); the Cognitive Interviewing technique (meant to increase overall recall of details); or the Standard Interview technique.

None of these techniques work effectively on those with ASD conditions. Those with autism can shut- or even melt-down when yelled at or aren’t given an opportunity to explain their innocence. This is because they are very literal in their understanding and interpretation of language, often resulting in false agreement with the interrogator’s premises. The Standard Interview technique seems to produce the best results. Not many police interrogators know this, and it seems even fewer care. Poor interview techniques are how you end up with the “confession” of Michael Ledford.

Ledford is severely autistic. He is also serving a 50-year sentence for a crime he likely did not commit. That Ledford “confessed” is not the end of the argument either. On October 10, 1999, Ledford was 23; he had a wife and 1-year-old son. He also volunteered at the local fire station. On that night, about 20 minutes after leaving home, the fire station received an alarm. A fire was raging at Ledford’s home. He would lose his son, his wife (soon to be ex-wife) was gravely injured, and then his freedom went up in flames, too.

Ledford’s autism didn’t help his social life. Abrasive, cold, and quiet, Ledford struggled to get along with neighbors and his in-laws. A mess in social situations, he could be in a temper or in a “deep gloom.” When Ledford raced back to his burning home from the fire station, he “stood outside, dumbstruck.” Witnesses said Ledford didn’t scream or cry, and many accused that Ledford “didn’t try hard enough” to run into his burning home. These “abnormal” behaviors caused Ledford to become the police’s top suspect, and they didn’t relent until they “got their man.”

Police used the Reid Technique on Ledford, i.e., belligerent methods used during an hours-long interrogation intended to coerce a confession. As to guilt, it was presumed by the investigators. Only the “why” seemed to matter – the motive if you will. The interrogator first suggested to Ledford that he set the fire to “be a hero” by saving the very family he supposedly placed in danger. The interrogator said, “I can respect you for that.” Ledford didn’t confess to wanting to be the hero, initially.

Then the interrogator performed “a constant theatrical handwringing” about “overwhelming evidence” (there was none), “failed” polygraph examinations (each was inconclusive), and a suspect refusing “to be helped.” Ledford was persistent: “I did not set the fire that took the life of my son and damned near took the life of my wife”; “If I was going to set a fire as a joke … I’m not going to do it in the same building as I live in.…”; “Why would I have.…”; and “I am telling you, I did not set that fire … I didn’t start it … it wasn’t me.”

An interrogation is normally 30-120 minutes. They are “considered undeniably coercive” after six hours. Interrogators pushed Ledford for nearly five grueling hours. And as the video makes clear, the interrogators understood that Ledford had some undiagnosed disorder. Ledford would later be officially diagnosed by a University of Virginia Clinical and Forensic Psychologist to be “in the autism spectrum or [having] a severe nonverbal learning disorder.”

During the final hour, Ledford adopts the interrogator’s suggestion that the fire was set so he could be the hero “theory.” Ostensibly, this would allow Ledford to improve the strained relationship with his in-laws (at least in the tortured logic of the investigators). Ledford then writes his alleged confession, including details that are clearly at odds with prior evidence and fueled by imagination. Unbelievably, the original police report was then amended to match the “confession.” There is no physical evidence or witnesses linking Ledford to the crime. Nor was there any further investigation or corroboration. The dubious confession alone was used to convict Ledford.

A particularly disturbing detail is found at the end of the recorded interrogation. The investigators seemingly wanted Ledford to thank them. Each asked Ledford if he felt better for confessing. He muttered, “Yeah.” To which, they said, “good” and “I saw relief on his face.”

Attorneys from the firm Baker Botts and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project have been assisting Ledford since 2016. The lawyers proved to a trial court that the “fire couldn’t have started with a candle on the chair or while he was at home.” That was November 2021. But in 2022, an appellate court dismissed the case, and the Supreme Court of Virginia has since refused to hear the case. Ledford may get clemency if he applies, but that is a very long shot. Or, Ledford may have to serve 27 more years in prison for an incident (and we don’t know it wasn’t an accident) he is not responsible for. Surely, that must make Ledford feel much better, at least in the warped world of his interrogators.

Ledford’s experience embodies everything that’s wrong with interrogations in the U.S. – lies, false promises, coercion, ignoring evidence and all while taking advantage of a vulnerable person. What makes his case especially maddening is the fact interrogators clearly knew Ledford was “different.” But instead of taking that into account in how they interrogated him, they used his vulnerability against him, the truth be damned.

“Nobody wants a person with autism to have a negative interaction with law enforcement – not law enforcement, not families, not anyone,” said Neelkamal Soares, a professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Western Michigan University. Soares added, “So let’s find a constructive way to reduce the frequency.” Unfortunately, thus far, that’s turned out to be the impossible dream.

In Search of Justice for Autistic Offenders

The Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report in June 2020 warning that criminal justice systems are “failing those with learning disabilities and autistic people.” The barriers presented by divergent communication and behavioral patterns frequently result in an inability to construct a clear narrative, understand legal rights or implications of what they say (or agree to), and all while being “more suggestible” and “likely to confabulate.” The majority of autistic persons have an IQ less than 70; thus, while ASD is not strictly correlative to learning disabilities, the conditions often exist simultaneously.

Much of the research that has been conducted pertains solely to initial encounters with law enforcement, not the arrest/interrogation process, and much less research has been conducted on how autistic people fare during the judicial process and imprisonment. Ledford could easily be a case study at every level. Perhaps one day someone will ask Ledford for his perspectives.

One of the limited research studies conducted was an online survey of 93 lawyers. Nearly 85 percent of these were from the U.K., but all were members of U.K., European, or U.S. professional bodies. Each had to select results from the representation of one autistic and one non-autistic client over the prior five years.

The goal was to “examine four key questions across each stage of the justice process,” pertaining to autistic individuals, specifically: (1) is there access to fair justice for the defendant, (2) are reasonable adjustments implemented to enable effective participation, (3) does a lack of autism awareness disadvantage them, and (4) is there an increased risk of mental ill-health and suicidality?

Respondents were significantly less satisfied with the overall treatment of an autistic client, particularly during the investigation stages. On average, each respondent was nearly eight times more likely to be concerned about their client’s effective participation in the proceedings. Nearly 59 percent of prosecutors and 46 percent of judges “said or did something during the trial” appearing to reveal a lack of an “adequate understanding of autism.” But 60 percent of judges found the ASD condition to be a mitigating factor. On a rare positive note, most autistic offenders receive suspended or reduced sentences.

There are impacts on mental health. Attorneys reported a near 400 percent increase in reports concerning possible self-harm relative to non-autistic clients and nearly 600 percent increase in reports of meltdowns during their encounter with the CJS. One positive finding was that 53 percent of attorneys believed the jury was provided “sufficient information about autism” and its effect on in-court behavior, presentation, and communication.

The U.K. requires that an “appropriate adult” (“AA”) be provided when a “vulnerable” suspect is detained. A “vulnerable” suspect is characterized as being “mentally disturbed or otherwise mentally vulnerable.” An AA is intended to “act to safeguard the interests and rights of vulnerable defendants by ensuring that they are treated in a just manner and are able to participate effectively during an investigation.” This is something that’s not required, or even offered, in the U.S. but definitely ought to be.

It appears that the immediate need for judiciary training is to “ensure the entire courtroom is autism aware to facilitate effective participation for the defendant.” In the U.K., the National Autistic Society collaborated with the Her Majesty’s Young Offender’s Institute Feltham to “develop Autism Accreditation standards for prisons.” When custodial sentences must be imposed, prisons and probation agents need to modify their services for an autistic offender.

Standards require the inclusion of an autism “champion” among staff; staff training for autism; an individual plan for each person to cover unique triggers, strengths, weaknesses, and support needs; and assurances that the prison environment and activities are made accessible via reasonable adjustments. Advocates believe the Autism Accreditation should become the “gold standard practice” and pressure should be applied to persuade or force prison administrators to adopt these standards.

How Far Has Autism Awareness Training Come?

Currently, ASD Awareness training is still not part of standard law enforcement training in America. “Training is all over the place,” says Allen Copenhaver, assistant professor of criminal justice at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky. “From nonexistent to proficient” is how he describes the current state of training. But it isn’t for lack of effort by ASD advocates and support groups.

In 2004, the Bureau of Justice Assistance created the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (“JMHCP”). The JMHCP is a federal-level initiative designed to foster the “collaboration of mental health and justice officials.” The goal is to support training for interactions between law enforcement and those with mental health and co-occurring mental illness issues. The training also addresses SUDs and support services such as diversion programs, i.e., drug or mental health courts. Vera Institute of Justice’s Serving Safely program is also supported by the JMHCP. The Serving Safely program is a national initiative to enhance policing for persons with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little specific autism-law enforcement training in either program. At the state level, there are very few autism training programs. In California, recruits with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department must complete 15 hours of autism training, plus four additional hours after being hired. In New Jersey, 72 percent of audited agencies are in compliance with a 2008 law requiring ASD training. This New Jersey training for all first-responders can either be an internet-based program through a system called NJLearn or in-service training conducted by the specific department or agency. While California, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Utah do require ASD training, it is unknown if other states have similar requirements.

Kentucky does not require such training. Police in Kentucky can volunteer to take in-service training if and when the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training offers it or rely on other entities. These include the Kentucky Autism Training Center and the Police Autism Community Training program. However, when the Lexington, Kentucky, police department brought in the Police Community Autism Training program, the chief allowed only 15 minutes for training. Program director Abigail Love said they used the “firehose method” to at least provide as much information as possible to the attendees.

“What we need to do is say, ‘Here’s some characteristics that you should watch out for, and here’s how you can respond,’” said Love. But certainly 15 minutes isn’t anywhere close to sufficient time for meaningful training, which aptly reflects the low priority most law enforcement agencies assign to such training.

This lack of available training programs and half-hearted efforts by police departments are why critics are vocal about empty promises regarding autism training for law enforcement agencies. Some express concern that “stigmatizing information” is being taught to police departments because the training lacks enough depth and true perspective. Some police departments also don’t want to be “told how to diagnose” ASD conditions because that is not what they are there for. These attitudes are contributing to the growing consensus that autism training for the police should be standardized across departments, involve autistic people and their families, and include continuing learning courses.

There are some other training program initiatives created by private organizations being implemented. In response to criticisms, Utah passed House Bill 334 that went into effect on May 5, 2021. This bill requires that all new law enforcement officers be “trained in autism spectrum disorder and other mental illnesses.” It was sponsored by the Autism Council of Utah.

There is the John Hopkins All Children’s Training (“ACT”) program administered by Laura Gardner, Ph.D. The goal of the ACT program is to offer training on how first-responders and police can deescalate encounters involving individuals with ASD conditions. There is also The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards that offers an online course entitled “Autism Training and Certification for First Responders.” The course is 100 percent online and “focuses on ASD recognition, Communication strategies, Elopement (Wandering), scenario-based responses, Safety recommendations, and parent/caretaker perspectives.”

Another organization is the Immediate Response Increase Safety (“IRIS”) created in 2014. IRIS was created by the parents of two children with ASD conditions. The IRIS program consists of three parts: “online training, ASD symbols and a registration database using a mobile app.” The app is a smartphone program that can be downloaded by any first responder who has taken the online IRIS course. IRIS was developed to help communicate vital information that a vulnerable person having an encounter with police may not be able to convey directly.

Other Initiatives

Parents and care providers of those with ASD are also being proactive. Numerous steps are being taken in an effort to raise awareness in local police agencies about prevalent traits and characteristics of those with autism. The Autism Society’s Action Center (“ASAC”) provides several recommendations, one of which is for advocates to inquire with local police agencies to determine what kind of autism awareness training is in place. ASAC’s recommendations include guidance from The National Autism Association (“NAA”). The NAA’s free guide titled “Meet the Police” includes a “What is Autism” handout created especially for families to share with police.

The ASAC also recommends that an autistic child be registered with the local police department and the 911 database dispatch. ASAC also advises to specifically request an “officer trained in crisis intervention” when making a non-emergency call for assistance and have the vulnerable person carry an identification card and a medical alert bracelet. These items can provide vital details about the person such as name, age, diagnosis, and medications. ASD-specific information can also be included.

Persons with an ASD condition and their parents or care providers should roleplay police encounters. This allows the person with an ASD condition to become familiar with these situations to the extent practicable and how they should respond for their own safety. Advocates also recommend using social stories, picture books, arts, crafts, and games to teach the vulnerable person as much about police encounters as they are able to process. It is important to teach them that there will be occasions where police, other first-responders, and officials may have to interact with the autistic person. These include airports, building entrances, campuses, and even schools and shopping malls.

In the U.K., an autism card program is being introduced. These “autism alert” cards are actually issued by the police to vulnerable persons. “Up until now, officers had no way of knowing whether someone is autistic,” said Hughes. She added that the cards “should allow officers to adapt their communication or actions, so they can make sure they treat autistic people appropriately and with respect.” This is something that should seriously be considered here in the U.S.

Conclusion

All members of the CJS have a lot to learn about ASD conditions and the people trying to survive in spite of being “different.” While it is fair to state that police have a difficult task differentiating between an autistic person’s traits and characteristics and that of a person under the influence or otherwise prone to violence, there can be no excuse for the behavior of police in far too many encounters with an autistic person. No person should be killed or seriously injured due to a mental health episode or cognitive divergence. And when an inexcusable tragedy does occur, we must, as a society, demand true accountability. Advocates, parents, and care providers must continue the difficult task of raising awareness, effectuating change, and demanding proper training and true accountability so that no other autistic person is senselessly killed while simply walking to the store to buy a drink.  

Sources: autism.org: autismspeaks.org; autismcincy.org; clickondetroit.com; cnn.com; cp24.com; frontiersin.org; insurancejournal.com; learnbehavioral.com; medicalxpress.com; miaminewtimes.com; minds.wisconsin.edu; npr.org; onlinelibrary.wiley.com; reason.com; rollingstone.com; sci-hub.ru; spectrumnews.org; thetrace.org; time.com; truthout.org; unomaha.edu; winknews.com

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