Editor’s Note: Camille Proctor is the founder and executive director of The Color of Autism Foundation, an organization committed to educating and assisting African American families with autistic children. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
When I hear about the many fatal police encounters involving people, particularly Black men and boys, who are suffering from some sort of mental health episode, I cringe not only at the sad details, but at the way many people are so quick to say, “train the police.”
It is simply not a long-term solution to expect officers to be able to, for example, accurately differentiate a real threat from someone who is in crisis and needs mental help. There needs to be a specific system put in place that routinely incorporates the expertise of mental health experts to de-escalate these situations.
I cannot read the story of Walter Wallace Jr. and others like him who were in crisis when they encountered law enforcement, without thinking of my 14-year-old son, Ari, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was two.
By now many people are familiar with “the talk” that parents have with their Black children about how to act if they ever have to deal with the police. Well, when you’re a parent to a Black child who communicates differently, the weight of giving that talk can feel a bit heavier.
In the months that followed Ari’s diagnosis, I remember going to support groups and being the only Black parent there. I asked questions relevant to African Americans like: What’s going to happen if my son is still unable to speak when he’s a teenager, 6 ft tall, doesn’t understand how to yield and gets stopped by the police?
The leaders of the support group and attendees would unanimously say things like “nothing is going to happen” and that “the police will lead him to safety.”
When I would explain to them that African American children are only afforded innocence for what seems like the first few years of their lives before they are quickly fast tracked into the criminal justice system, I would be accused of being a downer or playing the race card, when I was simply informing them of the harsh realities of African American life.
Autism is a spectrum and it doesn’t have a color, but African American autistics come into this world Black and that’s what is seen before anything else. I realized that something had to be done to not only protect my son, but other children. In 2009, I founded the Color of Autism Foundation and our mission is to build efficacy and to provide culturally competent support within the African American community.
Now that my son is older, I’ve talked to him about the police and I’ve explained that he has to listen carefully to their words, he must comply and make no sudden moves, which is hard because stimming (the repetitive self-stimulatory behavior of, for example, flapping hands that is associated with autism) and pacing are how he regulates himself.
In an instant, when he will have to clearly state his name, say that he is autistic, and ask to call his mom, it is hard to predict that he will be able to do so without seeming “suspicious” or “threatening” to officers.
In an effort to be even more proactive, I took my son when he was 10 years old to get a state ID and I urge every parent to get an ID card for your child. An ID can be helpful in many instances because that tiny plastic card holds vital information about who they are and where they live in the event they can’t communicate it.
Part of being culturally competent is not being blind to the fact that police officers are not properly trained to be mental health interventionalists, and they shouldn’t be tasked with being one. They need back up. Crisis Intervention Teams should be called when someone is having a mental crisis. The police aren’t mental health professionals.
We’ve seen this with the case of Walter Wallace Jr., who, according to his family, had a history of mental health issues and was in crisis when they called trying to get an ambulance, not the police. The police showed up and were not prepared with the necessary skills to deal with Wallace, who Philadelphia Police Sgt. Eric Grippafter said was waving a knife erratically.
When I think about how dismissive the other parents in my very first support groups were about any possible future police encounters with my son, I can’t help but to think of Elijah McClain. He was a young Black man simply walking home from the convenience store and stopped because a 911 caller said he looked “sketchy.” McClain, who died after an encounter with the police, could be heard on bodycam footage saying “I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me?”
For me, McClain’s death was crippling. Though there was no record released of him being diagnosed with a disorder – and I’m certainly not trying to diagnose him here – as a parent of a child on the spectrum, I listened to a young man desperately try to explain that he was “different.” Parents listened to this young man, as though he were our own, beg for mercy and was given none.
For the Walter Wallaces and the Elijah McClains of the world, don’t solely rely on the police. Police and crisis intervention should be dispatched together. Having someone there who is trained to specifically de-escalate a situation when someone is having a mental health crisis could save lives.