Officer safety and autistic subjects

The recent 'pepper spray case' in Colorado offers a reminder about contact with subjects exhibiting behaviors common to persons with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or a variety of mental and/or psychological health issues

As was plainly evidenced by the encounter that law enforcers had with an eight-year-old boy in Colorado last week, a person with behavioral problems can present some serious tactical challenges — even if that person is four feet tall and 82 pounds.

Following the posting of that news item on PoliceOne, I had the opportunity to connect with Captain Greg Lineberry of the Everett (Wash.) Police Department, who rightly pointed out that officers responding to calls involving ‘out of control’ children should keep in mind that they may not be dealing with a child who merely needs better parenting. In some cases, that child may suffer from a medical condition — such as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) or a mental/psychological health issue — that is actually driving the behavior which led to the 911 call. Please note that I am NOT diagnosing this boy with ASD — I don’t know the nature or the depth of what his mom told Good Morning America was “a history of behavioral problems.”

I am, however, using this recent incident in the national news spotlight as a jumping off point on an important issue. Law enforcement contacts with ASD subjects can be hazardous for everyone involved.

“There are a lot of children living at home that suffer from varying degrees of autism,” Capt. Lineberry told me. “In many cases, autistic children and young adults exhibit self injurious or assaultive behaviors. Officers should maintain an awareness that when such children and young adults are exhibiting such behavior — and there is a medical condition behind it — the individual’s behavior cannot be self-controlled and may be highly unpredictable. Officer safety should be a consideration throughout the contact,” Lineberry said.

The Everett Police Department has developed a solution for mandatory domestic violence arrest situations when officers are dealing with assaults attributed to an underlying medical condition. Lineberry told me that this most frequently involves elderly subjects suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but it has also been applied to young adults suffering from mental health issues and Autism.

“In cases where officers are mandated by law to make an arrest under the domestic violence law, the officer has the ability to go through an on-call prosecutor to contact a judge. The officer satisfies the law by making the arrest, but if the judge believes that an immediate release is warranted under such special circumstances the judge will issue a written order doing so. That allows us to take the individual to a more appropriate treatment facility rather than incarceration and by using phone and e-mail to accomplish the release order we can do so in about as much time as a booking would have taken.”

Awareness can go a long way in helping to resolve situations involving ASD subjects. To that goal of increased officer awareness, I’ve written about autism in the past, and will do so again in the near future. In fact, I’m presently at I’m at the ILEETA Conference in the Chicagoland area, and in a couple of days I will spend some quality time with Susan Hamre, an expert on autism spectrum disorders and the director of the Autism Training Center in Lisle, Illinois. Following our meetings I will prepare another article to pass along Hamre’s recommendations on dealing with subjects exhibiting ASD behaviors (watch for that column in May). In the meantime, something posted to one of Hamre’s websites is worth contemplation here.

Under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders, there are five disorders that share distinct characteristics unique to classify and identify an Autism Spectrum Disorder:

1.) Autistic Disorder
2.) Asperger’s Disorder
3.) Rett’s Syndrome
4.) Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
5.) Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified

Remember that people with autism — children and adults alike — as well as people with other cognitive or developmental disabilities are less likely to commit a crime than others, but they are more likely than ever before to:

• Live independently without support
• Be out in public alone, without family or care providers
• Work, attend school, use public transportation, and even drive
• Have their access to public places and other freedoms challenged
• Have a medical emergency
• Be harassed and otherwise bullied
• Be a victim of sexual assault and other serious crimes
• Attract the attention of the police

Be advised that about half of people with ASD either cannot speak or they have difficulty speaking. Furthermore, their ability to interpret nonverbal communication is also typically impaired. Finally, you should remember that current data suggests that one out of every 110 children are diagnosed with ASD, and that these individuals cross all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines and affect thousands of Americans throughout the U.S.

As I’ve previously written, when it comes to interacting with people with ASD, the onus of responsibility falls upon the Sheepdogs to learn to speak and act in a way that the Sheep can understand. At the very least, the Sheepdogs must understand the Sheep, because the opposite is almost never going to be the case.

“Years ago,” Lineberry concluded, “I viewed every out of control child in a grocery store as a product of poor parenting. Now, from personal experience, I know that there may be other causes and I try to view those situations with a little more compassion and a little less judgment.”

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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