Published November 11th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Denise Dillard’s heart dropped when she got the call.
It was Dec. 2, her birthday, and her son Juleon had gone out to buy her a present.
The 19-year-old, who is Black and has autism, had been in an accident and stopped by police. He had swerved from one lane to another after spotting the store where he would buy his mom’s gift. Bam. He rammed into another driver’s car. Lights blinked and sirens blared. He slowed down to stop and called his mom.
“All I could envision was the aftermath and what was to be my son’s bloody, bullet-riddled body,” Dillard said.
When she arrived, the teen was standing in a dimly lit parking lot. Her thoughts began to race. By looking at him, an officer would never know he had a disability.
All they would see is a 6-foot-tall, 270-pound Black man. Because of his autism, it’s difficult for him to read social cues. On top of that, he has oppositional defiant disorder which makes him seem non-compliant.
In this case, the officer was slow to act.
“My nightmare did not occur,” Dillard wrote in a letter, thanking the officer for not pulling a gun on her son as he exhibited behaviors that could have been easily misinterpreted.
Other Black parents of children with autism in the Kansas City area echo Dillard’s concern. Some won’t even let their kids drive.
Like Joetta Mahan, another Kansas City mom whose son is 18, also autistic and is nonverbal.
“We don’t allow him to go anywhere without us,” Mahan said. “It’s just our fear of him ending up in the wrong place and him not being able to verbally communicate where he is and where he’s trying to go.”
She fears how officers would react to her son. She added: “The more aggressive a person gets, the more aggressive he becomes because that’s the way of protecting himself.”
These are just two examples of how complex interacting with police can be for youth with autism.
In Kansas City, roughly 6% of people ages 18 to 24 — who are of driving age — have a disability. That excludes those who have not been diagnosed, a persistent issue communities of color face, particularly Hispanic and Black children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although these disparities slowly are being remedied, the effects are ever-present. Delays in diagnosis hinder access to the tools they need, how they learn how to navigate the world and how to interact with law enforcement when they’re pulled over.
Autism is among many other invisible disabilities, such as deafness and blindness and mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, that affect people who come into contact with police.
“We think that autism has a look. We think that depression has a look. We think that schizophrenia has a look. It does not have a look to it,” says Denisha Gingles, a licensed behavioral analyst from St. Louis.
Advocates for disability rights say more light needs to be shed on intersectional issues such as race and disability. In the U.S., between 30% to 50% of police use-of-force incidents involve people with disabilities, according to a 2016 study by the Ruderman Foundation.
More recently Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old man, was shot and killed by police in Philadelphia. Wallace’s family say he was experiencing a psychological episode that may have been caused by possible bipolar disorder.
Local police forces are aware.
Crisis intervention experts teach law enforcement officers how to identify the cues of someone in a mental health crisis or someone agitated because of a disability. The aim is to de-escalate and “prevent the inappropriate restraint, incarceration, and stigmatization of persons with mental illness,” according to the KCPD’s CIT page.
But does it work?
It can. The four officers who are part of Kansas City’s crisis unit have trained about 41% of the department, said officer Marc Canovi, who has been with CIT for several years.
To complete the training, officers take 40 hours of classes. However, these classes are optional. Although Canovi said the program has helped folks in the community, there’s still work to be done. While sessions cover de-escalation techniques, there are some blind spots that some experts say need some fine-tuning.
A report by the Sentencing Project revealed that “implicit bias research has uncovered widespread and deep-seated tendencies among whites — including criminal justice practitioners — to associate (Black people) and Latinos with criminality.”
Officers in training often are primed by information found in the police academy curriculum that can color their view of what race will more likely commit a crime, according to “Police Use of Force,” a 2018 report released by the Commission on Civil Rights (CCR).
“Criminologists have found that the fact that most law enforcement are native-born citizens who have been exposed to these messages has an effect, and these messages become part of their ingrained perception on race,” according to the CCR report.
Catherine Lhamon, chairperson of the CCR and a civil rights attorney, said discriminatory behavior is pervasive.
“The impulse of discrimination is very strong and that’s true across time. That’s true across people,” Lhamon said. “It’s not limited to police interactions.”
It is also seen in the justice system as a whole. Lhamon, an attorney who represented people who were racially profiled by police before joining CCR, has seen firsthand how unfavorable interactions with police can sow distrust.
This helps her contextualize the issues explored in the 2018 report. In the course of the two-year study, she interviewed community members as well as police officers.
She learned that most of the time, escalated incidents are spurred by a lack of education or training. Officers told her how scared they were of unpredictable interactions and how they wished they had access to better training and more mental health support.
Studies show that a person’s demeanor, behavior or emotional state can affect how an officer reacts from one extreme to the other. Why?
Compliance culture is key in law enforcement. If a person does not comply with an officer’s orders, more often than not the individual finds themselves in handcuffs or subdued. The officer assumes they’re in danger.
“Many manifestations of disabilities can look like non-compliance,” she said. “It’s very useful to have training for officers about the kinds of issues that can come up with invisible disabilities — mental health disabilities, or auditory disabilities, visual disabilities — things that the officer may not see when interacting with the person.”
Lhamon says this points to a need for better programs that focus on the “serve and protect” part of policing.
“There are less lethal responses that can be tried first. There are alternative ways to interact in a situation, but that should be applicable across the board,” she said. “Not only for people with disabilities but for all of us.
“Take it away from the warrior mentality and you keep it in the guardian mentality. You’re there to help a community.”
To behaviorist Gingles, training doesn’t always last. She says the way in which behaviors are enforced makes it difficult to unlearn.
“I’m afraid if we continue to have reform conversations that we’ll continue to see the increased spending for police officers, as opposed to spending for the specific arenas that actually need the money,” she said. “We really have to break these things down.”
Gingles, who is from St. Louis, is a licensed behavior analyst and guest editor-in-chief of the academic journal Behavior Analysis in Practice.
“We actually do have data that shows (police officers) might resort back to what the culture is reinforcing,” she said.
She put it this way. If an officer wants to succeed, they respond to the incentives set by their supervisors or organization as a whole. Part of police culture is that sense of being part of a trusted group. If an officer attends a de-escalating course, data show it is effective for some time. However, if the police culture isn’t serious about change what they learned will not be enforced.
So more often than not, the onus is placed on parents.
“We really train Black and Brown folks how to interface with police officers. And we don’t stop to think, ‘Why is this for us?’ ” Gingles said. “Unfortunately, even that training doesn’t help us.”
She suggests restructuring programs to focus on how to reflect and acknowledge biases, which impact how one behaves. And right now, the responsibility to behave well is placed on the shoulders of the Black and Brown community members.
This feeds into the larger conversation of intersectional issues, particularly disabilities within Black and Brown communities and officers’ perception of what a threat looks like.
Like the Dillards, parents teach their kids to keep their hands out of their pockets, to remain calm and to do their best to communicate with the officer.
“The ownership is on autistic Black folks. And that just seems extremely unfair when they are individuals who don’t get paid to be themselves,” Gingles said. “But we pay law enforcement officers to do their jobs.”
She adds that acknowledging personal biases is the first step.
“You might not get rid of the bias that is there, but what you can do next is up to you. That’s how we educate ourselves around hatred and bigotry and oppression.”
Racial profiling and the disproportionate impact it has on the intersection of BIPOC and disability communities is not just a Kansas City problem.
Study after study points to the discrepancies between the police’s treatment of white and BIPOC folks. Every time, these examinations drive home that training efforts to curb racial profiling have not been as effective as hoped.
Even current officers acknowledge that. Consider Shanette Hall, an officer at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and board member of the Ethical Society of Police.
Hall, a second-generation police officer and a Black woman, graduated from the academy in 2014, the year Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. That incident as well as the death of her brother have informed the way she performs her job. Her goal is to enact change from inside the force, in part, by focusing on serving and protecting communities rather than criminalizing.
“When you begin to serve people more, quite naturally, you’re just going to begin and protect them,” Hall said. “And then now you’re just going to see a decrease in crime.”
She says the culture problem is real. Officers who don’t agree with the “Blue Lives Matter” stance are ostracized. A white officer once told she didn’t belong in the force because she had “thugs in the family.”
Such racism within the force can translate to racial profiling on the streets, she said. This is why she advocates for better transparency and the removal of problem officers.
What does police reform look like to her, as an officer?
“Getting rid of some of these bad apples, right?” she said. “(Reform) looks like a number of different things.”
Without federal oversight and accountability, local police forces lack crucial tools to combat implicit racist and ableist mindsets. And without the proper training and focus on community policing, communities of color and those with disabilities will suffer.
“Officers should be some of the best communicators. Officers should be trained in communication and de-escalation in being more empathetic, sympathetic as well,” Hall said.
“I don’t think that much of the heaviness should fall on the public. … It’s not on people. That’s not their load to bear, it’s ours.”
That day on Dec. 2, the officer treated 19-year-old Juleon Dillard like a human.
His mother Denise Dillard understands the dangerous nature of an officers’ job day in and day out. But, like the experts, she wants to see more hands-on training.
She also hopes for more open conversations between communities and law enforcement. She’s hopeful.
“Maybe this experience… could (show the) ability to have good relations between the police and people of color,” she said.
“As well as highlighting the necessity to train officers and emergency workers who may not know or have yet to experience individuals with disabilities who are also living, thriving and contributing members of society, who get a little anxious by the sight of uniforms or sirens and voices of authority.”
Next Week: Search for Solutions
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS. Catherine Hoffman covers community and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported that Laquan McDonald, a teen with Autism, survived after being shot by Chicago police. This happened in 2014, not in 2017. The story has been updated to clarify that McDonald died as a result and linked to a Chicago Tribute report about the incident.