Sunday, March 21, 2010
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The agonizing killing of Steven Eugene Washington presents yet another teaching moment for the LAPD. Washington was gunned down in Koreatown by two LAPD gang unit officers. The details of the encounter are still blurry enough to raise lots of questions about why the killing happened. The twist is that Washington reportedly suffered from an autistic disability. Autism is virtually a no-man’s land for most police departments. There is virtually no formal training given to police on what to look for, how to approach, and engage individuals that may suffer from autism in street stops.
The grim record of encounters between police and autistic disabled suspects amply bears this out. According to FBI reports, individuals with developmental disabilities, and that includes autism, are seven times more likely to have contact with and confrontations with law enforcement than others. Mental health experts agree that the number that is likely to have contact with police is a serious and growing problem. The estimate is that upwards of a dozen persons with autism are harmed, hit with a stun gun, or killed by police each year. Washington may be the latest casualty to the list.
Autistic disabled individuals are more fearful, may exhibit strange or quirky movements, and suffer sudden panic attacks, when encountering strange sights, sounds and smells. In night time situations, and especially in high crime areas, these are the very things that attract police attention, and in far too many tragic cases, result in injury or death. In Washington’s case, the LAPD said that Washington apparently did all of the above, the panic, flight, and quick movement. It cost him his life.
The LAPD is no different than other police agencies when it comes to dealing with suspects such as Washington who may suffer from an autistic disability. They are simply clueless in how to deal with them.
And the evidence is that the numbers of those with autism in big cities such as L.A. is growing. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007 found that one in 150 children in New Jersey was diagnosed as autistic, a rate that was fifteen times greater than previous estimates. The number of those with autism in California is just as great. A study by researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute found a seven- to eight-fold increase in the number children born in California with autism since 1990. Other studies have found that children in Los Angeles were twice as likely to have autism as children in surrounding areas, and that testing, and treatment facilities and care services to identify and deal with autism are even more likely to be lacking, especially in South L.A.
Despite the staggering numbers of autistic disabled in New Jersey and California, and the much greater incidence of those with autism in Los Angeles, virtually none of the police departments in New Jersey had a comprehensive training program for officers on autism. The same can be said for police agencies in California.
LAPD officials recognize that a terrible mistake was made in the killing of Washington, a death that should not have happened. However, in the aftermath of the shooting, the inevitable deep soul search for answers is on with a vengeance. Those questions will center on the officer’s training, whether or not gunplay was necessary, and even why Washington was stopped, or even if he was stopped, in the first place.
These are questions that Washington’s family, friends, and LAPD officials want and need answered. When the dust finally settles, though, the tormenting question is what if anything the LAPD can and will do to see that a tragedy like the Washington killing doesn’t happen again.
In the absence of a firm training program to make LAPD officers recognize that there are a lot of individuals who walk L.A. streets who are autistic and what to do when they encounter them, the equally tormenting answer is that there could well be another tragedy such as Washington.
Washington’s slaying can, no must, be another teaching moment for the LAPD and the city. Let’s not waste that moment.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the Presisent of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundable. His Hutchinson Report can be heard on KPFK-Radio 90.7 FM, Saturdays, Noon to 1:00PM