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New Law Requiring Autism Training For Law Enforcement Draws Critics, Supporters

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit MGN Online
The Florida Channel

Governor Rick Scott recently signed a bill into law requiring autism awareness training for Florida’s law enforcement officers. But, some may not see the merits of the new law—that gained traction after a high profile incident last year.

About a year ago, 26-year-old Arnaldo Rios was handcuffed for hours and later interrogated by the North Miami Police Department. Officers had taken the autistic man into custody, after they mistook a toy truck in his hand for a gun.

Before police arrested Rios, they shot his caregiver Charles Kinsey. A cellphone video showed him on the ground with his hands upraised. At the time, officers said they were aiming at Rios.

The family is now suing the city as well as the officers involved, especially after viewing Rios’ three and half-minute interrogation. Rios mostly responds to every questions with a “yes,” even if it requires another response. He also later parrots the interrogator.

Below is a sample script of the July 16 video:

“What did you have in your hand? Do you know,” asked the Interrogator.

“Yeah,” Rios replied. 

“Was it shiny,” questioned the Interrogator.

“Shiny,” Rios replied.

“Or was it black,” the Interrogator asked.

“Black,” said Rios.

“Was it red,” the Interrogator asked.

“Red,” Rios replied.

“Or was it blue,” questioned the Interrogator.

“Blue,” Rios replied.

“Okay,” the Interrogator said.

“Okay,” Rios parroted.

“Okay, did you want to hurt anybody, tonight,” asked the Interrogator.

“Yeah,” Rios replied.

“Who did you want to hurt,” questioned the Interrogator.

“Uh huh. Yes,” Rios answered.

“Okay, Arnaldo, we're going to take you home,” said the Interrogator.

---------------------------------------Video Ends-----------------------------------

“So, I’ve been an advocate for over 20 odd years. I have a child with autism and I know that if a police officer would have stopped him and started pelting questions at him, our kids, their executive functioning just shuts down,” said Victoria Zepp with the Florida Coalition for Children. “They would say anything. They would parrot. They would do things.”

During this past legislative session, Zepp advocated on behalf of a bill—now law—to require autism awareness training for law enforcement.

“Officers need to know that there’s a way to deescalate, there’s a way to approach, and I’m telling you that will work with all populations then, that type of approach,” she added. “So, as a parent, I’m concerned. Therefore, I’m very happy that this was initiated. I think we need to take it a little step further, but I’m very happy that we at least have the awareness on the radar.”

But, some, like Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo, are a bit skeptical about the new law.

“I’m not the most tactful person, but that’s feel-good legislation,” he said, at an Aprill forum. “‘Look what we did! We mandated more training for law enforcement.’ That’s easy for the Florida legislature to do. But, does that dramatically change or impact beneficially the families who already have a difficult struggle to deal with their children or their adult children that they can’t work out on their own or their caretakers?”

DeLeo says the issue is personal for him since he has family members and friends with autistic children. He says while he was a South Florida officer, he also responded to multiple situations with autistic kids.

“So, I get the issue,” DeLeo added. “But, it’s very easy for the legislature to say, ‘Hey, we’ve addressed the issue because we said law enforcement’s got to take a four-hour class.’ That doesn’t fix the true issue. What it did it now creates an expectation that because our officers went to a four-hour class, it’s going to make it all better. But, we haven’t fixed the issue. We’ve dressed it up. We’ve put some wrapping on it. But, what we really need to be doing is to find out who is the best group of people with the right skillset to see it coming, intervene appropriately, and if we need to be there in a supporting role, that’s what we should be doing. But, we are not the best agency to be solving that.”

Still, Matt Puckett with the Florida Police Benevolent Association—which represents thousands of officers—says DeLeo doesn’t speak for all law enforcement.

“I don’t think it’s feel-good legislation,” he said. “I think it’s important legislation. I think that’s an incredibly insensitive statement for the police chief to make. If you talk to anybody who’s parent of a child with autism, that incident in Miami was their worse fear, their worst nightmare. SO, to better train officers on how to handle dealing with someone who’s on the spectrum to at least notice the signs…if we did nothing, but just that, we’re at least making some progress.”

Rep. Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach)—who sponsored the legislation—also disagrees with DeLeo’s assessment, especially since it came from a parent in his district with a child with autism.

“So, to see it go from just a constituent with a concern to law two years later, it’s a great feeling,” said Jenne. “I’m really happy about it. It’s a bill I’m really proud to have done. I think if it helps save one person from being accosted incorrectly or just from a police officer from having the worst night of his or life because they made a mistake, misreading the situation.”

The new law takes effect October 1 st.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner .

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