Autistic people may have poor eye contact or engage in repetitive behaviors, which may strike police officers as suspicious. They also might be slow to react to police commands, which can cause a routine stop to spin out of control. In Greenville, South Carolina, one news account tells of an autistic man named Tario Anderson: “Officers said they saw Anderson walking on the sidewalk and tried him to question him. They said when they put a spotlight on Anderson, he put his hands in his pockets, started walking the other way and eventually started running from them. He was shocked with a Taser and arrested because he didn’t follow the officers’ commands.”Anderson is also African American, which adds another dimension to the story. In the wake of incidents in which African Americans had died at the hands of white police officers, one father wrote of his autistic son: “What if my son pulling back from a cop is seen as an act of aggression? What if a simple repetitive motion is mistaken for an attempt at physical confrontation? If a cop is yelling at my son and he doesn’t respond because he doesn’t understand, what’s stopping the cop from murdering my boy in cold blood?"
The shooting renewed calls from advocates for the mentally ill and autistic for more federal funding to increase training for police, and for technology that can help locate people with disabilities or dementia who wander away from their caretakers.
“This is important and rewarding work, but it is also challenging, even on a good day, and requires incredible patience and dedication,” said Barbara Merrill, the CEO of the American Network of Community Options and Resources, a trade association for workers who help disabled people.
“Aggressive interactions with law enforcement who have not been trained to identify, support and assist individuals with disabilities or autism make a hard job even harder.”
In Miami-Dade, interactions between police officers and mentally ill and developmentally disabled people are frequent. The issue has not gone ignored — training for cops in dealing with both populations has been lauded thanks to the “Crisis Intervention Team” program pushed by Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman.
The program became a greater priority for police departments in the mid-2000s after a string of high-profile shooting deaths involving mentally ill people.
In the past decade, more than 4,700 officers have undergone the crisis intervention training, which includes a class designed to help cops understand the challenges of dealing with autistic people.
The autism course is taught by two local police officers who themselves have autistic children, plus Teresa Becerra, the executive director of the Autism Society of Florida. Her 20-year-old son, Robert, plays a key role in helping officers learn and get accustomed to behaviors of severely autistic people.
“His presence alone has a deep and lasting impact on the officers,” she told the Miami Herald.
Although North Miami police send personnel to the training, it was unclear Thursday whether the officers involved in this week’s shooting had attended. They had not been named.