When a North Miami cop shot at a severely autistic man playing with a silver toy truck — wounding his caregiver — it underscored one of the most difficult challenges that officers face:
Dealing with the developmentally disabled and mentally ill.
As happens often with people who suffer from severe autism, the 27-year-old wandered away from his caregivers, in this case leaving a group home. Someone in the neighborhood misinterpreted his behavior, calling 911 while apparently mistaking his toy truck for a gun.
When North Miami police confronted the man sitting cross-legged in the middle of an intersection, he refused commands to lay down. That’s not unusual, experts say, for profoundly autistic people who cannot process verbal commands from police officers trained to think the worst.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“It looks like they’re being defiant, when in fact they have a disability,” said National Autism Association spokeswoman Wendy Fournier. “A lot of times they’re not verbal either, so they can’t even talk to police to explain why they are not responding.”
“This case is so crazy. I’m so glad that the man didn’t get shot and so grateful that his caregiver is going to be OK.”
The shooting of caretaker Charles Kinsey sparked widespread outrage Thursday after bystander video emerged showing him with his arms raised as police officers confronted the unnamed autistic man, who began hollering loudly. The president of North Miami’s police union said Thursday that the officer was aiming for the autistic man — fearing Kinsey was in danger — but hit the caretaker by mistake.
Kinsey, a staffer with the group home, had followed the man when he wandered off, planning to guide him back home.
The shooting comes against the backdrop of tensions raised by police killings of black men in recent months. Kinsey is black, while the unnamed autistic man appeared to be a white Hispanic.
The shooting renewed calls from advocates for the mentally ill and autistic for more federal funding to increase training for police, and for technology that can help locate people with disabilities or dementia who wander away from their caretakers.
“This is important and rewarding work, but it is also challenging, even on a good day, and requires incredible patience and dedication,” said Barbara Merrill, the CEO of the American Network of Community Options and Resources, a trade association for workers who help disabled people.
“Aggressive interactions with law enforcement who have not been trained to identify, support and assist individuals with disabilities or autism make a hard job even harder.”
In Miami-Dade, interactions between police officers and mentally ill and developmentally disabled people are frequent. The issue has not gone ignored — training for cops in dealing with both populations has been lauded thanks to the “Crisis Intervention Team” program pushed by Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman.
The program became a greater priority for police departments in the mid-2000s after a string of high-profile shooting deaths involving mentally ill people.
In the past decade, more than 4,700 officers have undergone the crisis intervention training, which includes a class designed to help cops understand the challenges of dealing with autistic people.
“We’ve made great progress,” Leifman said.
In the autism course, officers are taught the basics, learning to recognize the traits of different autistic people. Severely autistic people can often rock back and forth, slap themselves and grunt — and carry an object as a type of security blanket when they are out in public.
The autism course is taught by two local police officers who themselves have autistic children, plus Teresa Becerra, the executive director of the Autism Society of Florida. Her 20-year-old son, Robert, plays a key role in helping officers learn and get accustomed to behaviors of severely autistic people.
“His presence alone has a deep and lasting impact on the officers,” she told the Miami Herald.
Although North Miami police send personnel to the training, it was unclear Thursday whether the officers involved in this week’s shooting had attended. They had not been named.
Most calls for crisis-trained officers involve people suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia, usually those who have gone off their medications or have stopped treatment and can suffer from hallucinations or paranoia. But developmentally disabled people — people with autism, Down syndrome or other chronic handicaps — offer a distinct but equally difficult set of challenges for law enforcement.
In 2010, Ana Ramirez of West Kendall was arrested after she jumped on Miami-Dade police officers who were using a Taser stun gun on her son, who has Down syndrome. They had been called to the home after he had a violent outburst.
The mother had warned dispatchers not to use a Taser because of her adult son’s handicap and weak heart. When he had a “fit of rage” with officers on the sidewalk, they still used the stun weapon on him; she was arrested for resisting arrest.
Ramirez was later convicted at trial of resisting arrest without violence, but she was not jailed and the conviction does not appear on her criminal history.
In a 2006 case, a severely autistic 17-year-old named Kevin Colindres became unruly with his family after refusing to put on his socks to go on church. His sister called 911.
Miami police officers restrained Colindres during a scuffle, using what his lawyer called a hog-tie. Colindres stopped breathing, fell into a coma and lingered for weeks before dying of heart failure.
The department insisted it did nothing wrong. His family sued, and an arbitrator awarded them $2.6 million. The state legislature wouldn’t pay out that much, and they settled with the family for $550,000.
The Colindres’ family attorney, Stuart Grossman, called this week’s shooting a “perfect storm” of circumstances.
“We’re asking police to become more sensitive and better trained at a time when they’re feeling justifiably under tremendous pressure because of random shootings,” Grossman said. “They’re getting trigger happy when society has a lot of wrongs in how it treats mentally ill people.”
The National Autism Association recommends that caregivers take autistic people to visit local police stations, so local officers get to know them. And the association also believes cops should visit group homes in their districts to meet the residents.
The disability of the man shot at by North Miami police was unknown to officers, according to the union. Kinsey — on the ground, with his hands up — was hollering at them that the man was handicapped, but officers could not hear him, the union president said.
Police officers are often hampered by the lack of information in adrenaline-filled situations, said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York police officer and current professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He said 911 calls are a major problem.
“They are unverified calls and the officers go into the situation with a different mind-set,” he said. “Cops are wired to think the worst and wonder why this person is not complying, and sometimes that can lead to lethal results.”