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Self-Advocates Train To Have Safe Encounters With Police


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Emily Iland spent decades advocating for her 30-year-old son, who has autism, his own apartment, a college degree and an accounting career.

Now, as part of the Autism Society of Los Angeles, Iland is trying to make sure young people like her son who are pushing for independence, don’t wind up as law enforcement statistics.

Since 2007, Iland has been trying to teach Los Angeles Police Department officers how to recognize and interact with people who have autism spectrum disorders. Now she’s trying to teach people with autism what to do if they are stopped by police:

Don’t run or reach into your pocket. Stay calm. Show them your hands. If you’re handcuffed or put into a patrol car, be quiet, be patient, be still. If you’re arrested, tell the officers you have a disability and ask to talk to a lawyer.

Those are the basics of Iland’s “Be Safe” campaign, which includes a DVD starring young people with autism role-playing police encounters, and a guidebook for parents, teachers and counselors.

People on the autism spectrum often have trouble socializing and communicating; they may exhibit inappropriate behavior, misread social cues or become agitated under stress. Statistics suggest that they are seven times as likely as someone without autism to be involved with law officers as a victim, witness or offender.

Iland’s sessions with the LAPD brought her face to face with a reality that her training couldn’t counter:

“The police told me something,” she said. “If someone runs, they have to chase them. If someone puts their hand in their waistband, they have to assume they are reaching for a weapon. Even if they know the person has autism, they have to respond to what they see.

“When I learned how they operate, how they think,” Iland said, “that’s when I realized we have to train our young people, not just the police.”

Every year, about 50,000 teenagers on the autism spectrum enter adulthood. Because of the expanding access to therapeutic services, many will have jobs, driver’s licenses, hobbies and social lives that take them into the streets.

The results can sometimes be tragic.

Four years ago, an LAPD officer shot Steven Eugene Washington to death, as the 27-year-old walked alone at night along a street. A pair of officers intended to question him about a noise they heard nearby. When they called out to him from their patrol car, he gave them a “hard” look and reached toward his waistband, they later said.

One officer drew his gun. Washington walked toward the car with a “blank stare,” the officers said. He ignored commands to raise his hands. The officer fired a shot that struck Washington in the head. The young man was unarmed; he had a cellphone clipped to his waistband.

The shooting drew complaints from advocates for people with disabilities, the ACLU, and the young man’s family and friends. The city’s civilian police commission found the officers’ tactics at fault, overruled LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and ordered them disciplined.

And that was in a department that is considered better than most in training officers to recognize signs of disabilities, including autism.

That case was a catalyst for Iland’s “Be Safe” movie. She couldn’t help but think that Washington might have been safe if he had put his hands in the air instead of reaching toward his phone.

Dozens of young adults who are on the autism spectrum and a cadre of officers from the LAPD gathered recently to watch a screening of the “Be Safe” movie.

The officers moved through the crowd between episodes, chatting and playing games built around safety rules. The audience cheered when they took to the stage to display their batons and stun guns.

The video is based on real cases of young people who landed in trouble because of their autism:

A 14-year-old who was arrested after he climbed on an unattended police motorcycle and fought the officer who tried to pull him off. A new driver who roared through a line of traffic officers waving cars away from a crash because she was so intent on pulling up to a fast-food restaurant. A 22-year-old who spent a night in jail after he told police who stopped him for speeding that he had been taking drugs; what he had taken were vitamins from a drugstore.

One episode featured a skateboarder being detained by police looking for a suspect in a nearby robbery. In the DVD, the encounter went off perfectly:

The young man put his hands in the air, stood stock still as police patted him down and sat quietly handcuffed on the curb while they checked his ID. “Thank you for cooperating,” an officer said after he unfastened the cuffs.

Still, it was hard to watch, one mother said. Her son just got his driver’s license and is eager to go out on his own. “I worry about him all the time,” she said.

She hopes officers won’t misunderstand signs that could spell trouble: his tics that look like furtive movements, the blank stare that might suggest drug use and the difficulty the 21-year-old has responding to commands because his language processing is slow.

And she wants her son to understand what police are up against. “He needs to know what to expect and how his actions are being perceived by police officers,” she said. “He needs to know not to run, not to panic. I need to be able to trust him to let the officers do their job.”

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Comments (19 Responses)

  1. Dadvocate says:

    Kudos to Emily Iland for her critical safety work. This is hugely important. There are over one million first responders in the US who need training. Only a small percentage have received more than a cursory introduction to autism or DD. We need to educate them. Our community needs safety and risk management training every bit as badly as professionals do. Few of us have it.

    As Emily says, first responders are taught in part to focus on physical behavior and body language. Studies have shown that people with autism and developmental disabilities are 8x as likely as a typical person to have some type of first response interaction (possibly due in part to atypical behaviors). First responders are generally trained (for good reasons: their and the public’s safety) to insist on compliance with their commands. If compliance doesn’t happen, professionals are taught to increase force to achieve it…UNLESS they are told, or determine for themselves, that there are special circumstances (like a disability) or other reasons to go to “Plan B.”

  2. VMGillen says:

    Bravo! I spent a lot of time and effort getting MPs to recognize the differences in dealing with extr-ordinary populations… and things worked well, until the kids got bigger… then, “behaviors” became a challenge to authority, and all bets were off. In the civilian world the NYPD has been very responsive… but god forbid a full-grown person of the non-caucasion persuasion should require careful, considered response. Ms. Iland’s practice should be a component of life-skills training.

  3. Bobbie Schafer says:

    This kind of training is critical for both our kids and law enforcement. I would have one more suggestion for those of us with verbal kids who can understand the training: I have taught my son that if he is ever stopped by the police, he should first say “I have autism,” and “May I call my mom?” He has very high anxiety, and if he doesn’t get the words out right away, his anxiety of being in a situation may be too much for him to remember his training. I know the police want them to answer their questions and respond in a certain manner, but when scared, a lot of our kids go straight to ‘fight or flight’ mode, and perhaps if the first words the officer hears is that the person they are questioning has autism, they may tend to use a different strategy than automatically assuming the worst.

  4. S Conrad says:

    Excellent article and I’m signed up for your Webinar in September. Unfortunately, this information is a day late and dollar short for my son. He is DD and was arrested for punching an officer in the jaw when he wouldn’t listen and stop. He was in his group home and when he kept walking the officer grabbed his hoodie and pulled him towards him. That’s when my son punched him. My son not only has DD he also has sensory issues. Needless to say he was arrested and charged with a class X felony aggravated battery! We are still in court even though the court appointed psychologist found him unfit to stand trial. So with all this being said, you can be sure I will be pushing my state to make it mandatory for First Responders to having training, but I also love the idea of teaching our loved ones the same thing! Thank You

  5. Patti Saylor says:

    Wonderful effort Emily Lland! My son, Ethan was killed 18 months ago during an encounter with off duty law enforcement officers. Efforts like this one are needed throughout the country to lessen the divide between vulnerable individuals who may present with needs unfamiliar to those in law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies must take a look at policies and procedures which may be counter productive to taking the time necessary to support an individual through situations requiring problem solving.

  6. Ileana morales says:

    Thank you…this is can I get or buy the DVD. My son is 21 year old, and one of my biggest fear is an encounter with the police…I also have a group of 34 young adults with disabilities that can learn from this DVD…

  7. Lisa says:

    Extremely critical skill to learn especially at the transitional stage in middle to high school or with maturity. I think training should be mandatory in all States for individuals with developmentally disabilities at home, school and in the community. I have heard of so many cases that ended up fatal. I would like to view a sample of the CD to share with colleagues who support students at the transitional level who often face difficulties with the law. As my mother would say “Prevention is better than cure.”

  8. Theresa Giacobbe says:

    Please post where this movie can be watched, borrowed or purchased. TY

  9. Kathy Kay says:

    I own Ms.. Iland’s movie and curriculum and it is excellent! People working in the field of disabilities, a friend or a family member of someone who has a disability , or a person in law enforcement , needs to see this film. It gives such a great viewpoint and will go a long way to help prevent tragic misunderstandings.
    I am not only the Director of a Center for Independent Living, but am also the parent of son on the spectrum . This has helped me both professionally and personally and I am very grateful to Ms. Iland for her knowledge and compassion.
    Kathy Kay

  10. S Rosenthal says:

    As a service coordinator whose agency provides Community and Day Habilitation services to many individuals with special abilities, I am impressed by Iland’s critically important work in safety and risk management training!
    Where can we get a set of her training curriculum and a copy of the DVD?

  11. Andrew Robinson says:

    I have been saying this very thing for quite a while now. Seems if a non-autistic person says it, people will listen but if an autistic says the same thing, no one will listen. For all those autistic people reading this, I would recommend getting and studying the book, Beat the Heat : How to Handle Encounters with Law Enforcement, by Katya Komisaruk. It covers far more info than Emily Iland covers, mostly because Katya has far more experience and is a practicing lawyer.

  12. LovesTeachingGina says:

    This is absolutely needed and should be part of curriculum in general, with advanced training for students receiving special education. Unfortunately, being a teacher in the field, we are required and pushed to use all of our time teaching core content. I teach Seniors in a resource room environment. The students want to get a job after high school. When they are that close to graduation, I find it very hard to teach Shakespeare, so the students can pass an end of the year standardized test, when I do not have time to teach them skills so they can live a more independent and high quality life.

  13. Helen Almengor says:

    I would love to get a copy of that DVD too! I have a 25 year old son with developmental disabilities and was followed by the cops while he was riding his bike all because he looked like the perp they were after, they chased him and he rode home, he didn’t know what to do, thankfully the neighbors seen what happened and stepped in to help….they were trying to question him, he was so scared. my neighbor was furious because the Sheriff officer said that people like that shouldn’t be able to be out in public on their own, he should have a tag or something on him. I called to file a complaint but nothing happened. Congrats to her for helping to empower her son and all that can benefit from that!!

  14. Lauri Sue Robertson says:

    An excellent idea and one that should be promoted throughout all police departments and disability organizations. People with developmental delays and those of us who are hard of hearing or deaf also experience difficulties in encountering law enforcement officers. We all need to understand what the police are looking for, and they need to understand us! I was once stopped for going through a Stop sign. When the officer asked me to get out of the car, I reached down to the floor to pick up my cane. Imagine my shock when I straightened up with my bright-pink stick in my hand, to see the officer standing there with his hand on his gun!! He didn’t know what I was reaching for, so his response was appropriate, if scary!

  15. Emily Iland says:

    Bobbie Shaefer and other Disability Scoop readers will be happy to know that one of the Episodes of BE SAFE The Movie is dedicated to self-disclosure of a disability. The matching Lesson in the BE SAFE Teachind Edition Curriculum explores different ways to do this and gives people the opportunity to practice doing so. The Curriculum also includes self-disclosure card templates for 9 different disabilities. The last step in safe self-disclosure emphasized in BE SAFE? Always ask before reaching in to pocket or bag to get out a card or any other type of identification!

  16. Sally Hayes says:

    We need to focus on all disabilities not just autism. look at the case of Evan Saylor the young man with DS who died in police custody.

  17. SQ says:

    Emily Iland’s Be Safe movie and curriculum are wonderful resources. I am using both in a Personal Safety class that I teach for young adults with special needs at the junior college level as well as with my son who is on the spectrum. While this instructional DVD was initially created for those living with autism, it is applicable to those with other disabilities as well.

  18. wanda says:

    I know that policemen need to protect them self.but some times they dont care if you have a autism or any thing like that .they can be mean there be times that thing happen in the homes with kids with autism and it not the kid s foult .they be live the parents or some one alse that they live with.polise officers need to take inconceterration that these kids are telling the truth.but i think all police officer need be traines in this area and other .be couse these kids and adults need to be protected

  19. Emily Iland says:

    Sally Hayes, you are absolutely right that BE SAFE is for everyone. The actors who appear in the movie and film-makers behind the scenes have a variety of disabilities ranging from intellectual disability to ADHD to bipolar disorder and of course autism. BE SAFE The Movie itself is very inclusive of people with any kind of exceptional learning needs. The BE SAFE Curriculum is differentiated to reach learners of all cognitive and language levels. The BE SAFE Curriculum provides sample self-disclosure cards for 9 different disabilities, just to get started! We need to reach a wide range of vulnerable people to help them learn to be safe.

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