Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Should Police Be More Aware of Autism?

Autism is a serious disorder that affects the way in which the individual is able to socialize with others.  The chance a child is born with autism in the United States is 1 in 110.  Autism is more common among boys than girls.  My question is, are police officers aware of the symptoms that identify a child as autistic, and if so, do they know how to react to the child’s behavior?  As Criminal Justice Majors we all understand that the majority of juvenile crime is committed by young males.  However, are police officers trained well enough to react to situations involving children with autism? 

In April of 2009, two Chicago police officers approached Oscar Guzman, a 16 year old, outside his parents’ restaurant.  Oscar was sitting outside minding his own business, watching pigeons.  When the officers got near the teen he fled into the restaurant.  In response the officers chased after him to investigate the situation.  Inside the restaurant Oscar’s parents explained to the officers that their son had special needs.  Oscar himself even told police that he was a “special boy.”  The officers then pushed Oscar’s father out of the way and hit the teen in the head with a retractable club.  The officers later reported that they believed the boy was reaching into his waist for a possible weapon.  They stated the child was hit on accident when he pushed one of the officers in the chest.  I find it appalling that the police ignored Oscar’s parents’ explanation that their son had autism and did not mean any harm.  Oscar had to have a small cut on his head stapled closed.  This is a case of police abusing their power to the extreme.  Not only did the officers strike a defenseless teen who has special needs, they also threatened to arrest his college aged sister when she questioned their actions. 

More recently, on February 1, 2012, 15 year old Stephon Watts was shot and killed by police in his home in Calumet City, Illinois.  Stephon was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, at age 9.  Calumet City police had been called ten times in the past two years to the home in regards to Stephon’s uncontrollable behavior.  On December 10, 2011 police were called to the home after Stephon punched his mother in the face.  During this previous altercation police were forced to tase the teenager because he came at them with a kitchen knife.  Then, on February 1, police were again called to the Watt’s home by Stephon’s father.  His father claimed the teen refused to go to school, and, as a result, he took away Stephon’s computer.  Stephon became outraged and attempted to retrieve his computer from the home’s basement.  When police arrived on the scene the boy was in the basement holding a knife.  Police claim it was a kitchen knife, while the child’s parents claim it was a butter knife.  When police approached the teen they say he swung the knife at the officers cutting one of their arms.  One of the officers was carrying a taser, but they felt their lives were in danger because the 5 foot 10, 220 pound teenager was blocking the stairs while still armed with a knife.  The officers both fired their guns at the teen resulting in his death. 

The death of Stephon Watts is a tragedy.  The family of the 15 year old boy is rightly enraged at the way police handled the situation.  But should the police have been there in the first place?  Stephon’s father claims that social workers and doctors told the family that they should call authorities whenever the teen got out of control.  It is debatable if this is part of the police’s service function.  However, with the state’s inability to properly fund mental care it has become the police’s problem.  The Calumet City Police Department claim that officers are trained and educated about how to react to individuals with autism.  I have a hard time grasping how well police truly are trained to deal with children suffering from various biological and psychological disorders.   In the case of Stephon Watts the police should have been fully trained and prepared since they had such a long history with the boy.  Police should have had a better plan of attack before arriving at the home.  Both officers should have been armed with tasers knowing such tactics were used on the teen in the past.  I believe that with the increased number of children being diagnosed with autism and the lack of mental care in our country, police must be better educated and trained to deal with these individuals since this responsibility has fallen into their laps.



  1. I had never even considered police would be called to homes to handle "out of control" children/young adults with autism. Police should definitely be properly trained on how to handle these individuals if they are going to be the ones responding to this type of call. Ideally, I think there should be a team of mental health professionals/doctors that would be on call to handle this type of situation. However, since that seems unlikely, police should be required to take classes to learn about different disorders that may effect the way individuals act.

  2. This is a great story with ethical dilemmas written all over it. For the oscar incident it was completely unnecessary for the police to strike his heading causing a wound that needed medical treatment. They could have very easily avoided the situation by acknowledging the parents warning of the special needs he had.

    As far as the Stephon case this was a whole different scenario. This was the tenth time they were called to the house and should have already known the actions that they needed to take based on the previous times. They didn't need to use deadly force in my opinion. However because none of them were armed with a taser (which they should have been based on previous occurences with Stephon) guns were used. We could go on for days talking about whether or not they had to shoot to kill, but that is a debate that is based on the situation at hand. Bottom line is yes, Police need to be better trained for situations like these because 1 out of every 110 isn't a small number. And since there aren't trained professionals in the medical fields to handle this, the burden is placed on the police. Further training and knowledge is definitely needed.

  3. I feel that in both these scenarios the police should have refrained from using and type of force. Whether the police know how to react to individual's with special needs or not, they are trained and I feel they are trained well enough to protect themselves from young teens without having to use force, or deadly force for that matter.Killing a young teen who has a knife is so out of control, especially with an individual who they know has special needs.

    As far as police being trained in order to handle individuals with special needs, this clearly is a must! We cannot have the public perveiving our officers as people who just kill individuals who are out of control because they are incapable of controlling a situation that they are called on to control.

  4. Im kind of on the fence about this topic. On one hand I want to say that if parnets tell you or you have beento this particular resident several times, other routes than what were taking should be taken. For example the first couple and children the police couldve handcuff the boy and got the story straight, also a apology is in order. Now for the boy who had the knife I think being over their numerous time a report shoulve been madee about his disability and a social worker of some sort should always be on the sence to talk to the child. A social worker is better trained that an officer.
    The opposing side is the first child souldve never ran from the police nor pulling something from his pockets. Normally police shoot to kill if they feel endanger. Now the child with the knife, an officer is trained to handle special needs children, but they are also trained to protect themselves. A knife regardless the magnitude of it can be used a deadly weapon. Which would give police the ok to use deadly force as well. Good article, just two horrible situations I would never want to be placed in.

  5. This is a topic that has never crossed my mind. It was an interesting read and a great post. I hardly know anything about the curriculum of police training, so I really don't know if the police can properly handle these kinds of situations. However, the examples you have provided are clear demonstrations of the police making bad decisions and being overly aggressive. In the case of Oscar Guzman, I feel that the police officers had tunnel vision and acted on their assumptions, clearly neglecting the facts presented by Oscar's parents. The second situation was tragic. Knowing that there have been problems with this household in the past, I think that the officers should have been more prepared such as equipping both officers with tasers. All in all, autism awareness is something that should have special emphasis in police training to avoid these situations.