As a mom raising a black son, a black autistic son, I fear the day he comes in contact with law enforcement. I worry about my son because autism affects the way he communicates and responds to communication from others. It affects the way he socializes and it also affects his behavior.
We live in New York City: home to Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner, and thousands of black men who are subjected to stop-and-frisk tactics every single day. So yes, I do worry about my son.
When it comes to “The Talk” that black parents have with their children on how to interact with police officers, I am often silent. I am silent because I am trying to figure out how I will be able to communicate how important this “life or death talk” is when my seven-year old son becomes a teenager.
When I heard that Kajieme Powell was gunned down by St. Louis, Missouri police officers only days after Ferguson police killed Michael Brown, my heart sank. According to police reports, Powell was wielding a knife and he refused to listen to the officers’ commands to drop it. As I watched the video of the killing, I wondered if events would’ve turned out differently if these officers had been properly trained to interact with someone who obviously had a mental illness. It is almost as if police are trained to shoot first and ask questions later. Powell could’ve been any of our kids.
We need continuous education of our law enforcement personnel. A one-time seminar is not enough. These seminars need to be conducted in every police precinct nationwide and we need to ensure the consistent implementation of the tactics they learn when they interact with the public.
A good place for police departments to start would be to read Autism & Law Enforcement: 25 Field Response Tips by Dennis Debbaudt. He is one of the leading experts on training law enforcement on how to interact with people with autism.
Now take a look at the 10 characteristics of individuals with autism that the Law Enforcement Awareness Network (L.E.A.N) highlights on their LEAN ON Us Autism Specific First Responder Pocket Cards. At age seven, my son already exhibits eight out of 10 of these characteristics.
1. Sensitivity to touch
2. Sensitivity to sound and light
3. Repetitive behavior
4. May not be able to speak/appear deaf
5. No sense of danger
6. Have fight or flight response
7. May not follow verbal commands
8. Need time to process information
9. May not know their rights
10. Appear nervous
I know as parents we can do our part by making sure that the officers in our local precinct are familiar with our children and their diagnoses. I know some parents who have taken their children to their local precinct to introduce them to police officers. Some precincts also have regular community meetings that we can attend. This will help to increase engagement with the officers who have sworn to protect and serve us.
I have to admit that none of these tips will guarantee our children’s safety when they encounter law enforcement. I also have to admit that I am still worried about the day that my son is in a situation with law enforcement that could escalate in a matter of seconds. So last but not least, as parents let us pray for the safety of our children.