Roughly 1 in 5 people with autism will have an interaction with law enforcement before they’re 21. At times, this doesn’t end up being a good interaction. One state is taking steps to ensure there are fewer negative incidents within their borders.
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice recently signed Senate Bill 634 into law. That requires certain officers to receive training on autism. Law enforcement and correctional officers will learn how best to address those with autism or other mental health disorders, with a goal of avoiding escalations within these interactions.
Governor Justice explained, “Research has shown us that interactions with law enforcement can be more dangerous for those with autism spectrum disorders. Many times, these officers without training come to opinions that can lead them to suspect these people because their behavior may be something they can’t pick up on.”
The training will address topics like appropriate techniques for interviewing or interrogating someone on the spectrum, locating a runaway with autism who is in danger, de-escalation that will ensure the safety of officers and the person with autism, and identifying and addressing challenges people with ASD face when in a correctional facility.
Advocates throughout West Virginia are happy to see the passage.
Marion County Disability Action Center Executive Director Julie Sole says, “It’s more about acceptance and, now, understanding. The bill takes that understanding to the next level to where law enforcement officers will have the needed training and understand how to respond to, work with and even interrogate individuals with disabilities. … Sometimes something that could be conceived as disobedience or noncompliance is really just a manifestation of the disability where the individual with autism doesn’t know how to respond socially and doesn’t know the norms of how to react, especially in a crisis situation.”
Sole says that in her area, there are many law enforcement officers who do take mental disabilities seriously and bring compassion to these interactions. In fact, her state Senator sponsored the bill. However, she hopes the bill’s passage increases exposure and leads to change across the state.
The training will be conducted by the Marshall University Autism Training Center.
The center’s executive director, Dr. Marc Ellison, says, “Senate Bill 634 is a really significant step in helping police officers and the community, in general, understand autism better and hopefully will prevent some really poor outcomes. I’m aware of only two states that require autism-specific training for police officers. So once again, West Virginia, at least in the world of autism support, is kind of a pioneer in leading the way.”
Under the new law, the Law Enforcement Professional Standards Subcommittee will also develop guidelines for law enforcement and corrections officers about responding to people on the spectrum who are crime victims, witnesses, suspected of a crime, or convicted.Whizzco