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.