Dear San Jose Police Department,
I commend you. You have done the best you can with the limited resources available to you. You have made difficult decisions, which required you to prioritize a long list of essential programs and services, directly impacting crime rates. The safety of our local citizens is in your hands, and I am sure that you are doing the best with what you currently have available. It’s a difficult task. I have no doubt that you were forced to make complex choices, and that you are probably still feeling the weight of those decisions. It’s hard to ignore the crime statistics within our city, which are undeniably appearing more dreadful every day. San Jose is, without a doubt, struggling to battle crime with the limited number of police officers available.
Your officers are trained to carry out carefully planned procedures to keep themselves safe, and the citizens of this city safe. They are educated to seek out potentially violent criminals, based on suspicious, irrational, or potentially harmful behaviors. You have gone to great lengths to explain, in detail, how to identify and apprehend potential threats. You have also extensively trained your officers to approach individuals with mental illness. Your job is not for the faint hearted. I could never put myself in your shoes. Again, I commend you.
Let’s imagine that there is late evening car accident in a residential area, and officers quickly arrive on the scene. Let’s imagine that as officers approach, a young man is seen running away from the scene, prompting suspicions of the thoroughly trained officers, who are strictly following protocol.
Let’s continue to imagine that the officers flash their lights and sound their alarms, then begin to yell to this suspicious young man. Let’s say, the young man rushes down the sidewalk, even more quickly, evading the police officers, in spite of their commands. I would imagine that an officer might say something like, “Police officer! Stop and put your hands in the air or we will shoot you!” This officer is following protocol. He is doing his job.
Now, let’s imagine that the suspicious individual pauses, glances back at officers, looks down at the palm of his hands, then continues to run down the street. The man walks with a peculiar gait, walking with what appears to be a limp, leading the officer to think that perhaps he is injured, possibly having fled from the scene of the crash moments before. Your officers are all aware that this is suspicious. They carry out the procedures on which they were trained.
Now, let’s say an officer catches up with the young man, a few blocks from his flashing squad car. The young man turns to face the officer, then quickly darts toward him, while waving his hands out in front of him, reaching toward the officer’s chest. “Stop, or I’ll shoot,” I would assume that the experienced veteran officer might say. Let’s assume the officer feels threatened, because he is making an assumptions, based on the training which he was provided.
I am going to halt this hypothetical situation right at this point, for two reasons. The first reason is simply that I cannot bear to comprehend the outcome of this scenario in my mind. While this situation is hypothetical, it is also completely plausible, based on the behaviors and mannerisms of a person who I hold very close to my heart.
The second reason why I am stopping right here is because the purpose of my message today is absolutely not to point fingers or throw out criticisms. I am writing to ask for you to make an effort to improve some things in your department. I am proposing that you implement solutions to a problem that has been too low on your radar for much too long.
What would you say, if I told you that the young man who I described above was not a criminal? What would you say, if I told you that he was not a threat to anyone? How would you feel if I told you that a trained officer could most easily identify, based solely on the brief description which I depicted, that the individual was a terrified young man with autism? What if knowing this information could save just one life, or prevent just one civilian injury? What if it could prevent more? Would your training efforts be worthwhile?
A loud noise, such as a crash, is a common sensory trigger for an individual with autism. This sort of trigger cause an autistic individual to run outside, in fear. Loud sounds, flashing lights, and sirens are all common sensory triggers for people on the autism spectrum. A person with autism may be non-verbal, or have limited verbal abilities, preventing them from responding to, or even understanding shouted commands.
Individuals with autism often speak and understand only phrases which are very literal and tangible. A phrase, such as “put your hands in the air” may not be comprehensible to an individual with autism, because “air” cannot be easily “seen” or “touched.” The young man in the scenario may have glanced at his hands, trying to figure out where he was supposed to put them, before running off again, in fear. A peculiar gait is very common among individuals with autism, as is a fascination with mechanical objects, such as guns, and shiny objects, such as badges. An individual with autism, such as my son, would be inclined to want to touch the shiny badge, out of curiosity. My son would likely seek out a hug from a stranger, in a moment of fear, running toward them, with his hands waving in front of him. He wouldn’t know any better.
Mental illness training for your officers is not enough to identify individuals with autism. A mentally ill individual has the ability and capacity to comprehend and verbalize a lack of understanding, while an individual with autism may not have that ability. It is far too easy to misjudge an autistic person for a defiant person, unless you are specifically trained.
I am a single mother of an autistic little boy, and the idea that “I should be doing more” resonates in my mind whenever my son has a bad day. I have done as much as I can. He wears an ID bracelet, because he does not know his name. I have placed alarms on my doors to alert me if he tries to open the door while I am asleep or in the shower. I literally lose sleep every night, worrying, knowing that I have never met a police officer who felt they were appropriately trained on the topic of autism.
He is only 6 years old, and he is prone to attention-drawing behaviors in loud or crowded settings. He is big for his age, appearing to be upwards of 10 years old, with only the developmental abilities of a toddler. My 80-pound six-year-old son will probably resemble a full-grown adult by the time he is 12, and will still have limited speaking abilities. For my son, it is likely a question of “WHEN,” not “IF,” he will cross paths with law enforcement.
May I suggest creating opportunities for special needs children to engage with uniformed police officers in an uncrowded, sensory-friendly environment? Could officers periodically travel to homes of high-risk children, so that they can bond with officers, in the hope that they will run “to police,” rather than “from police,” in the event of a situation? It can take a minute to break trust of a child with autism, and years of effort to repair it.
There is a non-profit program, called “Project Lifesaver,” which provides GPS tracking bracelets for high risk adults and children with special needs or dementia. May I suggest consideration of a pilot program for the safety of all high risk individuals?
Most importantly, may I suggest education and training for all police officers regarding autism? There is no need to reinvent the wheel, as there are many police departments nationwide who have already done the legwork for you. One quick web search led me to this first responder video [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtDRIYslWXA ] by Allegheny County, which is, in my opinion, very accurate and helpful.
Could I suggest simply passing on my brief summary of “autism basics” to your officers, as a quick start to understanding and communicating with autistic individuals in distress?
Characteristics of an autistic person in distress:
- Covering ears, regardless of noise level
- Unusual amount of strength when escalated or upset, able to lift with “superhuman” strength
- Fearful of lights, sirens, radios, shouting, cars, or sudden movements
- Running with a peculiar walk or limp
- Repeating words or phrases from questions that are asked
- Speaking “gibberish”
- Inappropriate laughter as a response to a question or command
- Robotic or unusual pitch
- Pacing in circles or flapping hands
- High pitched screams or grunts
- Running in fear
- No awareness/perception of danger
- Rocking back and forth, or banging head against something
- Perfect speech abilities, “normal” appearance, and rambling on about a specific topic in excessive detail, like a dictionary or encyclopedia
- Non-verbal adult, most commonly male
- May respond yes/no, but may not clearly understand questions
- May use eyes to point or direct you to something
- May be terrified or overwhelmed by touch, or may seek out physical contact, such as a hug or touch
Recommended interactions with an autistic person in distress:
- If escalated, lead him/her to an open space where he/she can engage in his nervous behaviors, pacing or jumping around, without injury
- Be patient and allow plenty of personal space
- Use a very calm, low voice
- Allow plenty of time to respond to questions
- Don’t make any sudden movements
- Turn off sirens, lights, lower radios
- Don’t yell or raise voices
- Simplify and be very specific with commands
I am certain that your police department has made countless efforts which have successfully prevented injuries, deaths, and crimes. Still, you will always be subjected to criticism from the public because there is no way to count how many people didn’t die today, and no way for the media to embrace the shock value of something that didn’t happen. There are no photos of the beautiful child who did not die today, and no video of the mother who didn’t cry distraught tears on every news channel twice per hour, because your efforts were successful. I’m sorry that there is little glory in prevention, but I promise you that I will personally stand up and publicly applaud you when I know that you have done more for people with autism.
Please don’t wait for a law suit for another unnecessary fatality before you invest in training. Please don’t wait for a retrospective opportunity to look back and say you “should have done more.” There are significantly more autistic persons in this city than there are murderers, and they are counting on you to do more for them. Their families are counting on you. I am counting on you.
Mother of an autistic child
[This was written on a day when I needed to vent. It was never sent to the police department.]
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