A Miami, Florida, police officer set off a national outcry in July after responding to reports of a suicidal man wielding a weapon. As the officer approached the 23-year-old holding a rectangular object sitting cross-legged in the middle of the road, another man entered the scene — Charles Kinsey. A few moments later, Kinsey was on his back, arms in the air, a bullet in his leg.
The object in the man’s hand turned out to be a toy train, and Kinsey was revealed to be the man’s caretaker. The subject of the initial call was born with autism; Kinsey, as caught on bystander video, had made an attempt to explain the situation to the officer before being shot.
The incident has set the stage for a packed house at the Law Enforcement and Autism Seminar hosted at California Lutheran University tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 23, where law enforcement and first responders from various agencies around the county will be represented for a four-hour training course.
Representatives from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department; CSU, Channel Islands, campus police; Point Mugu Navy Base police as well as the Oxnard, Ventura and Camarillo Police Departments will be in attendance. Last year, Port Hueneme sent several officers.
Aaron Kitzman sits on the board of the Autism Society in Ventura County. The seminar is an opportunity to give law enforcement and first responders information on how to best interact with children and adults living with autism, he says.
The Autism Society operates a hotline for families in need of resources, or who have concerns. Kitzman says a number of these calls led to the start of the seminar.
“We noticed several years back that families were having what they were describing as negative interactions with law enforcement,” said Kitzman, adding that these were typically young children or families with young adults who had run away from home. “The families were beside themselves. These were stories from families of how law enforcement didn’t have an understanding of the people they were serving.”
The Society brought in a trainer, Brian Herritt, to lead the seminar. Herritt had spent 13 years as a police officer and it was during that time that his son was diagnosed with autism.
“It was very quick for me to see that there was a real lack of understanding of what autism was, in law enforcement,” said Herritt. Herritt conducts seminars across the state, and assisted in the creation of a bill to require mandatory training for police officers on how to deal with people with autism. The bill, however, failed to materialize in any form other than a two-hour training video, which isn’t required viewing.
Herritt says, however, that this kind of training should be mandatory as interactions between police and people with autism will continue to increase.
“Every cop in America would take a bullet for a person with special needs and go out of their way to help protect them, but you really don’t understand [autism],” said Herritt. “When I became the parent on the inside, a couple of things early on really made me understand that there was a need for training.”
Herritt says that an interaction between his son and wife and a security guard drove the point home, after the guard threatened to physically restrain his then 8-year-old son.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 children born in the United States is born with some form of autism spectrum disorder; one in 42 boys is diagnosed, compared to one in 189 girls. While Herritt says that there is typically no physical impairment visible in a person with autism, psychologically, the individual processes information much more slowly than a person without autism.
This hindrance can lead to a responding officer being unable to distinguish a person with autism from a person under the influence of drugs, for instance.
“What we do in our job as cops is to make decisions very, very fast,” said Herritt. “When, in dealing with people with autism, it’s the exact opposite. Things have to go slow, you have to be prepared.”
The seminar will cover visual clues, signs and symptoms, de-escalation; and attendees will have an opportunity to meet two individuals with autism: one high-functioning who lives on her own and has a job, the other unable to get by without assistance.
The two-part seminar will also feature an afternoon session for families living with an autistic child or teenager. Families will have the opportunity to meet with local law enforcement and first responders, which Herritt says is one of the primary goals of the seminar — to bridge the gap between families and the officers who serve them.
The event is co-sponsored by Ventura County Law Enforcement’s Crisis Intervention.
Sgt. John Franchi is the Countywide Coordinator for the Crisis Intervention Team, and also a community resource sergeant for the Camarillo Police Department. Franchi says that the CIT hosts yearly 40-hour training sessions during which officers countywide receive special instruction on dealing with individuals with mental illness, as well as having a portion of the training dedicated to handling those on the autism spectrum.
“What we try to teach them is time and space, patience; you have to listen more, you’re not going to get an immediate response,” said Franchi. “I have a family member who is a high-functioning autistic; you learn that you have to be more patient, you have to listen; you can’t make a quick decision.”
A portion of the CIT training is funded by Ventura County Behavioral Health, without which, Franchi says, the course wouldn’t be able to be held, adding that things are much different today than they were 27 years ago when he began his career. The CIT course began in 2001.
“Mental health issues aren’t going away in society,” said Franchi. “I think we’re right on top of where we need to be as law enforcement in Ventura County, doing everything to train our officers.” Franchi adds that agencies countywide try to have at least 70 percent of their officers in the field receive specialized training.
Since the seminars began in 2013, Kitzman says, the Society has received fewer complaints from families with autistic children or teenagers. He credits this to working with the Crisis Intervention Team on a regular basis as well as to the seminars.
“We hope to just provide the education necessary to allow for the best possible outcome,” said Kitzman.
The evening session of the Law Enforcement and Autism Seminar begins tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 23, at 6 p.m. and is open to families of those with autism. RSVP is required; child care will be provided upon request. For more information and to RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 496-1632.