The Lessons Learned
On January 11, 2017 I wrote a blog stressing the need for targeted law enforcement training to ensure the safety of young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This was prompted by my participation on a panel discussion hosted by parent and autism advocate, Holly Robinson Peete. The panel included Charles Kinsey, an African American and behavior therapist, who on July 18, 2016 was shot and injured by law enforcement while trying to calm his client with autism.
I subsequently partnered with retired police Lt. Stan Campbell, formerly with Oklahoma City Police Department and founder of D.O.P.E (De-escalating Officer Patrol Encounters) to form “Spectrum Shield.” Our purpose is to promote trust, greater awareness and a positive dialogue to ensure the safety of our children with police encounters.
We hosted our first weekend training with 10 young adults and one very mature 15 yr. old, all with ASD. I lovingly refer to them as “my boys” because all but one have literally grown up in our center. I am very proud of them as they are attending community college, working P/T, driving and even dating.
Today, I am preparing them for the workforce and their independence in our communities. Unfortunately, we know that with independence comes risks and the risks are greater for African American youth, who are more likely than their white counterparts to have negative outcomes with police encounters. Ensuring their collective safety is of critical importance to me and we are excited to share our Spectrum Shield experience.
My boys arrived around 3pm to our beautiful 5 acre ranch in Agua Dulce, CA. They were greeted warmly with hugs, nourishment, and catch-up conversation before getting down to business. Our team included 3 support staff persons and videographers for the entire weekend.
Our first order of business was to have the boys sign a “Total Engagement” contract which included a ban on cell phone usage. I compassionately allowed them 10 minutes to say goodbye to their beloved cell phones. Friday was critical because it would establish the foundation for the entire weekend which was framed by two key messages “To keep you safe you must keep law enforcement safe” and “Suck up your ego and keep yourself safe.” We solicited their thoughts on these statements and police in general. Most had positive views on law enforcement.
An honest open dialogue was essential to create a baseline understanding needed to shape and direct the scope of our work. This training, while it had structure, needed to be organic and flexible to meet the needs of our participants.
I returned to the message “Suck up your ego and keep yourself safe” because it provided the perfect segue way to introduce the importance of carrying an autism disclosure card. We know that as these kids mature, many want to shed the autism label and be viewed the same as their typical peers.
To make the cards appealing we created samples with their names, pictures, and fictitious addresses such as 5761 Cool Lane or 1496 Smooth Operator Lane. All but three agreed to carry a card if it would save their lives.
Lt. Stan took over our training and warmly greeted them by referring to them as “family.” His calm and engaging demeanor resonated with them as he shared his personal experiences and reminded them that officers have families, loved ones, stresses, and are also subject to the influences of the media. I could see that my boys were “feeling” the humanity of law enforcement. He concluded by discussing the important role that verbal and nonverbal communication plays in police interactions.
To tap into their understanding of nonverbal behaviors, we looked at one of the arrest scenes from the movie “Straight Outta Compton” without audio. Most of the boys were familiar with the movie and paid close attention. The discussion was robust and on target.
An assessment of the nonverbal behaviors included comments such as “Cube felt wronged” because of his treatment by the police and the police were responding to the “mean mugging” (nonverbal angry looks) by NWA. Another pointed out that the city of Torrance, where the scene takes place, was predominately white and suggested that this may have influenced the response demonstrated by the police. We had total engagement and wrapped up the evening, prepped them for Saturday and instructed them to write reflections.
At 8 am our first two LAPD officers arrived for breakfast. They were surrounded by our young men who were anxious to talk and ask questions. One young man asked why police are given paid leaves when they shoot an innocent person. I smiled as I thought “good question.” I wonder the same thing!
Following breakfast our officers shared a PowerPoint presentation with step by step rules on what to do to remain safe with police followed by role playing exercises.
By noon we had been joined by three more officers; one retired and two active duty LAPD officers from Watts. In total, our officers represented over 70 years’ experience. The foundation had been laid to embark on more serious training so we broke into groups to rotate thru three different activities.
The pat downs were held in our spacious garage where officers explained it’s history and purpose. The boys were also informed of their rights as citizens. To prepare them, one of the officers submitted to a pat down while verbalizing each step in the process. This type of preparation is essential because many kids with ASD have sensory challenges and are uncomfortable with the sensation of touch.
The traffic stop was set up to simulate actual situations. The boys, working in pairs, were put through two different situations, with both “aggressive” and “calm” officer encounters and were expected to follow a series of commands such as put your hands on the steering wheel or step out of the car.
Most were appropriate when responding to the calm stop. However, the aggressive stop was very intense and demonstrated that despite the boys comfort level, they were challenged to respond appropriately. Responses revealed signs of confusion and an inability to follow basic commands, anxious behaviors such as shaking or inappropriate laughter, and making unexpected quick movements. It should be noted that despite the officers leading questions to disclose their autism or present a card, 100% failed to do so!
After each stop, our officers helped the boys to decompress and provided them with immediate feedback identifying behaviors that could cause the officers to feel unsafe.
Questions and Answers
The boys surrounded the officers and asked more questions related to LAPD procedures and protocol and also the training and preparation required to be a policeman. One young declared that he wants to be a policeman when he turns 50!
As Saturday ended we said our thank you’s and goodbyes to our new LAPD friends who praised my boys for being good kids. Sunday would be busy as we wrap up, clean up, and head back to L.A. for our parent debriefing.
Lessons Learned from…..
The boys were asked to provide written and verbal feedback. We were elated that everyone commented on the importance of making the police feel safe by following directions, showing respect and remaining calm. Several commented on how the police are human like the rest of us. One young man who initially had not wanted to carry a card, commented on the importance of disclosing his autism. 10 of 11 now willingly agree to carry cards.
The written and verbal feedback received from law enforcement was powerful and affirming! One officer wrote how he was influenced not only as a police officer but as a citizen. Another wrote, “this experience took my beliefs to a whole new level. Once you get to know someone in a face to face fashion, it enhances a desire to ensure every outcome of contact with ASD turns out positive.”
Our officers stressed to parents the importance of not teaching their children to fear the police because it creates distrust and to continue to review the steps for traffic stops with them.
Unanimously, they also urged the kids to willingly share their autism. One officer wrote “the majority of us want to help. We just need to understand.”
Spectrum Shield Take Away
Lt. Stan and I were encouraged by the feedback provided as well as the behavioral changes observed in the boys in two short days. Creating an environment which enables our kids to see the humanity in law enforcement and law enforcement to see the humanity in our kids, was essential to this entire process. We know that in the absence of meaningful engagement we rely on stereotypes.
Our observation of the boys’ responses to the traffic stop drills suggests that a “refresher” course should be provided to previous participants to ensure the retention and carryover of previously learned information.
Also, encouraging these young adults to willingly disclose ASD is imperative. We know that it can be accomplished if they are provided compelling evidence in a safe environment. An awareness and acceptance of their personal responsibility for their safety is an important message for them to hear and own.
In summary, we feel blessed to have the opportunity to provide this type of training to these amazing young people. For information on our next Spectrum Shield Training visit our website, at www.speakla.com/spectrum-shield/
We thank Xerox Corporation for sponsoring our weekend and Holly Robinson Peete for advancing this needed conversation.