In The Politics of Autism, I discuss interactions between police and autistic people. Police officers need training to respond appropriately. When they do not, things get out of hand. A recent incident in Salt Lake City is getting national attention.
Utah lawmakers approved HB334 during this past legislative session, which deals with special needs training for law enforcers.
"This bill requires peace officer training to include training on autism spectrum disorder and other mental illnesses," according to the bill.
The law went into effect on May 5. In preparation for the bill's signing, at the quarterly Peace Officer Standards and Training Council meeting in March, it approved a motion that requires all new police cadets to receive three hours of autism education during their basic training, in addition to other mental health training that is already required.
The effort to get legislators to change the law to require more autism training was already in motion when a Salt Lake police officer shot 13-year-old Linden Cameron on Sept. 4 as he ran from them in the area of 500 South and Navajo Street (1335 West). Linden had been acting out that day and his mother — who was exhausted and felt like she was out of options — called police asking for members of the Crisis Intervention Team to respond.
Linden survived the shooting but is still recovering from physical and psychological injuries today. A decision by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office about whether the shooting was legally justified is still pending.
During the three-hour course, officers will not be trained on how to make a diagnosis that someone has autism. Rather, the goal of the training is to give officers the tools to recognize that the odd behavior someone is exhibiting may not be due to that person being high on drugs or deliberately disobeying an officer's commands, and how an officer can react to that situation.
"What I want to do in my training is show the difference between criminal activity and autism and mental illness and give them the tools they need to de-escalate the situation," [Cheryl] Smith said. "At least in these three hours, we can give them the basic tools that they need to de-escalate a situation and, not diagnose, but determine the difference between what's going on."
One of the big takeaways from the training, Smith said, is that officers should not rush in.
"The biggest thing they can do is slow it down and not charge in and touch," she said. "Don't get in their face. The kids go 'fight or flight' because they hate to be touched.
"That's what cops are trained to do is to get in and take care of the situation. So this is a really different way to approach," she said.
As part of the training, Smith shows body camera videos collected in other states from officers who have had contact with autistic people. During one training session, Smith showed officers an example of an autistic person who was stimming, or making repetitive motions. Stimming could involve an autistic person flapping their hands, flicking their fingers, rocking back and forth or playing with their lips with their fingers. While at first it may appear the person is on drugs, these are all calming methods for an autistic person, she said.
"Oh, I've seen that, but I didn't know what that was," one officer told her during a training session.