Autism, Brown Skin and Police Encounters

By Shawn Rhea Aug 11, 2016

The case of Charles Kinsey, the Black behavioral therapist whom North Miami police shot as he lay on his back with his hands in the air, has all but faded from the national news spotlight. But one group of people can’t look away from the July 18 incident: parents of people like Arnaldo Eliud Rios Soto, the 26-year-old autistic client Kinsey was trying to protect when SWAT Team member Jonathan Aledda shot him in the right leg.

"When I saw the incident, I burst into tears," says Mercedes Martinez, a Los Angeles mother of an autistic 13-year-old named Rakim. "As a Black mother you already have a lot of concerns about your child when it comes to the police, but when your child has autism, you really worry. Rakim has severe autism. You have to speak calmly to him, and in that situation the cops were screaming. If that happened to my son, he’d start stimming."  

The Kinsey incident began when a driver called 911 and said she’d just seen a "Spanish guy, young kid" who looked like "a mentally ill person,” sitting in the middle of the street holding "something like the shape of a gun" to his head and a man trying to "talk him out of it." The Latino man she was describing was Rios, who had wandered away from his group home and was sitting in the middle of the street playing with a toy car. Kinsey was trying to coax him out of the street when police arrived. Kinsey repeatedly told the officers that Rios was autistic, under his care and unarmed. Bystander video shows the 47-year-old laying on his back with his hands up while pleading with Soto to lie down on his stomach per police orders. At one point he shouts, “All he has is a toy truck in his hand. That’s all it is. There is no need for guns."

After seeing his caregiver shot with an assault rifle, Rios was handcuffed and held in the back of a squad car for at least three hours, reports The Miami Herald. The manager of the group home said police described Rios’ behavior as "loopy" and wouldn’t allow him or Rios’ mother to see him. The day after the incident, a traumatized Rios returned to the blood-stained spot where Kinsey was shot, threw himself on the ground and yelled, "I hate the police. I hate the police," according to the Herald.

In the way of an explanation, a police union official told media that Aledda had intended to shoot the autistic man, but missed and struck the caregiver they were trying to protect.

This bizarre shooting came, ironically, just three month after Florida passed legislation aimed at aiding the safe return of autistic and other special-needs individuals to their homes should they wander off, and three days after the U.S. Senate approved a bill that would, among other things, provide funding for first responders to be trained in how to handle such incidents.

The training wouldn’t be mandatory, however. Many advocates believe it should be, given that autistic people are seven times more likely than their peers without developmental disorders to have encounters with the police. And when they do they do come into contact with police, they are often unable to communicate and respond to officers’ questions. They also become agitated, which puts them at further risk of police violence.

Ruby Gourdine, a professor of social work at Howard University, says autistic Black people may be at even greater risk for aggressive police encounters not simply because of their skin color, but also because they tend to be diagnosed later than their White counterparts. This means they often miss early therapy that could improve their coping skills when encountering challenging situations like interacting with police.

The risk of avoidable police aggression against people with autism isn’t a new concern, nor is it specific to people of color. Dennis Debbaudt, who is White, says he and his now-grown autistic son had a frightening encounter with the police outside of a toy store about when his son was 5. The boy began crying and shrieking uncontrollably inside the store and then continued as Debbaudt took him outside and attempted to put him in the car. Police thought he was abducting a child. “I turned around and we were surrounded by law enforcement with their guns drawn,” he says.

The incident prompted Debbaudt to write several papers addressing the issue. He also conducts trainings across the country instructing law enforcement officials how to interact with people with autism. Among other tactics, the trainings teach officers how to recognize common autistic behaviors, establish communications, deescalate dangerous situations and safely restrain or arrest autistic individuals if needed.

While Debbaudt was able to diffuse his situation and keep his son and himself unharmed, Black parents say they feel less confident that they or their autistic children would fare so well given the current climate of police aggression toward people of color. There have been recent incidents that suggest they have reason for concern. In 2012, for example, 15-year-old Stephon Edward Watts was shot and killed by Calumet City, Illinois, police officers who knew he was autistic when they were called to his home. In 2014, Troy Caneles, a Black autistic teen from The Bronx, New York, was beaten by police who said they didn’t like the way he responded to their question about why he was leaning on a car outside his home.

While her son hasn’t had any police encounters to date, Martinez says there have been several incidents that could have easily escalated into officials being called and violence ensuing. Once Rakim, who is obsessed with basketballs, grabbed a sphere-like object out of shopper’s cart in a department store and tried to bounce it, causing it to shatter. On another occasion he took food out of a stranger’s hand at a park and began eating it. In both instances, the women were frightened and upset by Rakim’s behavior and were unforgiving even when they learned he was autistic.

“My son looks typical,* and if you have a preconceived notion that Black kids are more criminally inclined and view his behavior through that lens, then it can dangerous for him,” says Martinez, who fears police may attack first and ask questions later even if they’re aware of her son’s condition.

Rakim currently has two caregivers—one Black and one White—who trade off supervising him when Martinez can’t be present. Martinez admits that she’s more worried when the Black man takes Rakim out. “When he’s with the White caregiver, I feel that at least the police will stop to ask questions before they use force, and that’s sad because both men are extremely well qualified to do their jobs.”

A number of local police forces are beginning to grapple with the issue by providing regular instruction to help their officers recognize and respond to people with autism. In Westchester County, New York, for example, the New Rochelle Police Department covers officer interaction with autistic people during its annual in-service training, according to department spokesperson Captain Robert Gazzola. The county also has a database and a GPS system that helps officers identify and locate autistic people.

The Westchester County trainings have been a literal lifesaver, said one African-American mother whose autistic 15-year-old son has wandered off on several occasions and been safely returned by New Rochelle police. “He’s wandered into neighboring towns, knocked on doors, [and been] invited in for snacks while the police were called,” says the mom on condition that we not publish her or his name.  He “has enjoyed his time with Westchester cops because they usually let him eat ice cream at the precinct or in their cars.”

While some communities like Westchester County are making strides, advocates say much still needs to be done to reduce the risks that autistic people and their caretakers—particularly those of color—face during police encounters. In the meantime, Autism Speaks’s website offers tips that might help families take precautions.

Shawn Rhea is a Harlem, New York-based writer whose work is focused on social justice and healthcare issues.

*Post has been updated since publication to reflect that Martinez used the word "typical," not "normal." We regret the mistake.