Re-Route Magazine

A Call For Change: Police Response to Autism-Related Incidents

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6 min read

In a rapidly evolving society, acknowledging the needs of the invisible disabled has become a critical imperative. One aspect of this evolution is the staggering rise in individuals diagnosed with autism, a population rapidly becoming the fastest-growing minority in the United States. However, as this demographic shift unfolds, an alarming reality surfaces: our current systems, protocols, and practices are inadequately equipped to handle non-emergency situations involving autist individuals. In this article, we delve into the letter from an advocate who outlines the pressing need for a nuanced, compassionate approach to interactions with the invisibly disabled. From enhanced police training and revamped dispatch procedures to expanding the presence of Peace Officers, the journey toward change begins with education and empathy.

A portrait of three people in a dining room. Nicole's client, his grandmother and another family member. The grandmother is sat at the end of a rectangle table and the two other family members are respectively at her right and left. She has her arms around them.
Nicole's client, the subject of her letter and his family.

The subsequent communication has been composed by Nicole Santiago, M.Ed, a committed advocate for neurodiversity and disabilities, who personally experiences an A.D.H.D. perspective. This letter is directed to the San Antonio Police Department with the intention of addressing an important and pivotal issue.

The San Antonio Police Department Protocol Is Problematic When The Invisibly Disabled Are Involved

Chief McManus’ "lack of discipline" prompted me to write. I’m an advocate who is neurodivergent myself, and I represent a youth with Autism, IDD, A.D.H.D., and PSD, along with his grandmother. Last year, my client and his grandmother were asked to leave Palm Sunday services at San Fernando Cathedral for wearing a hat. We met with the priest, and the church completed an online disability training immediately afterward. However, it lacked information about autism. We requested additional resources for the church but received no response. We filed a police report regarding an assault on the grandmother by an usher. While detectives followed investigation protocol, the church refused to remove the responsible usher, and no charges were filed. The case was closed without significant investigation.

We hired an attorney, and a mediation was held. $10,000.00 later, the church's response was, and I quote, "If you go inside the Alamo, they will ask you to take off your hat. Maybe he can wear a headband or something. This is about respect." I replied, "If the rule was for people to stand up inside the Alamo and a person in a wheelchair was there, would they provide her with crutches to stand, or would they allow her to remain in her wheelchair? What would show her respect?" We still received no satisfactory answer. My client continues to experience nightmares and fears that the usher will come for him in his sleep. This is our current situation and the challenge we face. And now, let me share what happened next...

My client called the S.A.P.D. non-emergency number this spring to request help during a meltdown. Instead of sending a mental health officer, two police deputies were dispatched and unlawfully arrested my client. We filed a complaint and were told that the police prioritize arrests in cases of injury caused by a family member (Grandma had some scratches on her arms). None of the officers at the scene faced the consequences. My client became nonverbal for three days following the incident. San Antonio's Mental Health Unit has 8-9 officers per shift for a city of 1.47 million residents. We're facing a resource shortage.

Nicole's client at a restaurant table, plates are in front of him, he is drinking a soda from a straw.

Working more closely with S.A.P.D. this summer, I learned that the call made by my client's grandmother was classified as a "domestic violence" call. Domestic violence is unfortunately common in Texas, prompting police protocol in their General Manual to address it. I've read the protocol. A neurodivergent person experiencing a behavioral meltdown will likely be misunderstood by an uneducated police officer following the manual's general procedures.

However, those who understand communication-impaired and/or autist individuals recognize that a disability-induced behavioral meltdown involving actions such as arm-flailing and kicking is not domestic violence or abuse.

So, what's the solution? How do we change protocols to prevent the arrest of a young man having a meltdown, which worsens his mental health and leads to nonverbal periods and P.T.S.D.? How do we bridge this gap? Here's the first step: Education.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a meltdown, self-harm, or any mental health issue related to a visible or invisible disability:

  • Call the Mental Health office. If you dial 911, request the mental health department.
  • Do not use the non-emergency number, as it dispatches the police.
  • Even if the mental health department restrains the disabled individual, they'll take them to the hospital instead of jail.
  • If you are in a crisis in San Antonio, you can call SMART at 210-223-7233.

Moreover, if you report an injury caused by a disabled person, even if their behavior was due to their disability, they will still arrest the disabled person. This is the protocol to ensure safety.

Nicole Santiago, M.Ed.
Disability Advocate

With a voice resonating with personal experience, Nicole paints a vivid picture of the challenges faced by the invisibly disabled within the criminal justice system. A youth with Autism, IDD, A.D.H.D., and PSD, along with his grandmother, found themselves embroiled in an incident that exposes the deep-rooted gaps in our approach to handling such situations. Last year, they were ousted from a place of worship due to a seemingly innocuous matter—the youth wearing a hat. The ensuing events, including an altercation and the subsequent response from the police, showcase the shortcomings in our current protocol.

The Quest for Sensitivity: A Demand for Change

The glaring need for a more compassionate, informed approach stands out in this narrative. Sensitivity training for law enforcement emerges as a pivotal step. The police officers' lack of understanding of neurodivergence, as seen in the incident involving a meltdown and subsequent arrest, highlights the urgency of training that fosters comprehension, patience, and empathy. To achieve this, education about autist and related conditions should be integrated into the core of police training, ensuring officers are prepared to navigate diverse scenarios.

Rethinking Dispatch Procedures: A New Horizon

An overlooked but critical juncture in the interaction between the police and the public is the 911 dispatch process. In many instances, dispatchers hold the power to shape the outcome of an encounter. By incorporating questions that identify autism-related factors in non-emergency calls, dispatchers can initiate an appropriate response that aligns with the needs of the individual involved.

Nicole's client shaking hands with an attractive female with long brown hair, wearing a dark blue blouse. She has a crossover bag over her right shoulder.

The Emergence of Peace Officers: A Progressive Move

The concept of Peace Officers, individuals with social work or psychology backgrounds, presents a profound solution. These officers, skilled in de-escalation techniques and adept at understanding the needs of the invisibly disabled, could serve as a bridge between law enforcement and the community. Their presence would ensure that interactions are marked by empathy, support, and a commitment to fostering a safe environment.

From Arrest to Support: The Shift in Paradigm

Inclusivity demands a fundamental shift in our approach. The letter illustrates how encounters that could have been diffused with sensitivity instead spiraled into traumatic experiences. This narrative highlights the critical growth required—from approaching incidents involving invisibly disabled individuals with an inclination towards arrest to prioritizing support, understanding, and a genuine desire to aid the individual and their caregivers.

An Inclusive Tomorrow

As the United States grapples with the rapid growth of its autist population, the call for change cannot be ignored. The advocate's letter resonates as a clarion call to reshape our protocols, infuse them with empathy, and build a society that stands as a true haven for all. The journey is ongoing, marked by the pursuit of education, policy reform, and, ultimately, a harmonious connection between the police and the community they serve. It's a journey toward an inclusive tomorrow that beckons us all.

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