When a mother and her autistic son visited the Margate Police Department earlier this year to discuss the relationship between police and the autistic community, chief of police Jonathan Shaw realized the need for additional training for officers.
In response, Shaw's police department recently launched "Project Autism," to teach and train officers how to interact with individuals on the spectrum. It also establishes indicators for autistic individuals to help officers understand who they are talking to and how to handle the situation.
That's in addition to a four-hour autism training required by law since 2017 for officers across the state. That law was passed more than a year after North Miami Police Officer Jonathan Aledda fired three shots at a autistic man in North Miami. "We just don't want to make mistakes like that," Shaw said on Sundial.
Chief Shaw joined Sundial to talk about how Project Autism will work and what other projects his department is working on to connect with their community.
This has been editd lightly for clarity.
WLRN: What are the common concerns you hear from law enforcement regarding police relations with people on the autism spectrum?
SHAW: We just don't want to make mistakes. We don't want to be in a (bad) situation if we have the ability to find out that somebody has special needs. We don't want to put ourselves in that position. We don't want to put the citizens in that position. We want to handle everything as safe and as practical as possible. Those kinds of situations (shootings) I think are what really came to the forefront and kind of triggered all of these programs for police departments to step up and find new ways of reaching our community.
There was a young autistic man who came to your police department. What did he share with you and your officers?
His mom and him kind of talked to our officers about situations. Sometimes you just can't go up to somebody with autism. For example maybe put your hand on their shoulder. You're doing that as a sign of trying to show compassion but that might be something that is a trigger for somebody. They talked about ways that we talk to them (autistic individuals) and how we express ourselves. If our officers come up with our lights and sirens on that could be another trigger. We learned that if we have this ability to find out and we can take some basic precautionary steps before we get there to make it as safe as possible when we do get there then let's do that.
What goes into the training and helping an officer figure out where's this person on the spectrum and how then to approach them?
Our police officers they have to wear so many hats when they go to every one of these calls every day. It is virtually impossible for our officers to say 'after talking to this person I think that they may have some kind of special need and this is where they probably fall on the spectrum' but just with some basic indicators that we've learned through our training and how we want to deal with them -- like how we talk to the individual, how we react and maybe they're non communicative -- and that you know historically has been something that police officers weren't used to. We were used to you know the fact that everybody answered the questions and everybody spoke to us and now if we don't have that our officers now understand this may be something that is not being done blatantly against them but it may just be something that they don't have the ability to communicate with our officers in that traditional way.