When a Stafford County jury this month found an autistic teenager guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer and recommended that he spend 10 1/2 years in prison, a woman in the second row sobbed.
It wasn’t the defendant’s mother. She wouldn’t cry until she reached her car. It was Teresa Champion.
Champion had sat through the trial for days and couldn’t help drawing parallels between the defendant, Reginald “Neli” Latson, 19, and her son James, a 17-year-old with autism.
James might have said this, she thought. James might have done that. She had fresh bruises on her body that showed that James, too, had lost his temper to the point of violence.
“This is what we live with,” said Champion, of Springfield. “When they go over the edge, there is no pulling back. ”
The issue resonates not only with parents but with police. Every year, the International Association of Chiefs of Police picks one major issue to address at a national summit. In 2010, it was improving police response to people with mental illness and such conditions as autism.
“It has been a huge and significant part of our conversation in the last couple of years,” said John Firman, director of research for the organization.
Firman, who participates in the Big Brother program, has a “little brother” with Asperger’s. He said that when he goes out with the youngster, he sometimes wonders, “If anything would happen here, how would police deal with him?”
Among the summit’s recommendations, Firman said, were that all officers be trained in how to deal with such people and that police work closely with families and community organizations.
Latson’s case, however, was not a matter of a law enforcement officer being untrained, the prosecutor said. “This deputy has a 33-year-old mentally retarded child,” Olsen said. “So the deputy is very sensitive to dealing with children with disabilities. He’s lived it every day for the last 33 years.”