Viral video prompts concern, change for first responder training in NY

It's a video that has gone viral across the country.  Body camera footage shows a Buckeye, Arizona police officer taking down a 14-year-old boy, who has autism.

The boy was stimming, a common act for those on the spectrum to help calm their nerves.  When the boy's aunt intervenes, the officer admits he did not know what stimming was, and thought the boy was inhaling drugs.

The incident happened this past July.  It's a scenario Genie Denton of Morrisonville, New York says she has lived before with her 14-year-old son, Gideon, who has autism.  Denton is also a board member for Autism Alliance of Northeastern New York.

"There was a time when there was a behavior on the school bus and they had to call the police and when I arrived on scene, the police officer was on the bus, and kept saying 'I don't know what's going on, I told this kid to stop," Denton said.

Though this happened in Virginia where they used to live, Denton says educating all first responders in every state on how to recognize the signs of someone with autism is long overdue.

"Whether you're a firefighter, or ambulance that just pulled up to the scene, or a police officer, having that moment to say 'hey, let me see what else I have in my tool kit so I can provide quality service," Denton said.

A set of proposed bills in Albany would answer her plea.  One would mandate that exact thing.  The other would develop an ID card, to be carried by those medically diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, who represents New York's 111th District, is the author and prime sponsor.

"A few years back, we came up with an idea to create an autism action package, the initiative is called Autism Action New York," said Santabarbara.  "It brought me to tears watching that video; one in 45 boys is the diagnosis right now."

Santabarbara's 16-year-old son, Michael, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3.

"There's a number of things my son does to manage anxiety, manage stress, so, in a stressful situation, my son will start waving this around like this and we go through hundreds of rubber bands," said Santabarbara.  "This teen was doing something very similar, waving around a piece of string and it was misinterpreted by the officer."

Some law enforcement officers in this region are ahead of the curve.  The Plattsburgh Police Department is part of the Zone 9 Police Academy, encompassing Essex, Franklin and Clinton counties.  

"We do have specific blocks of academy instruction that deal with nothing but mental illness," said Lt. Brad Kiroy, who has been at the department for 18 years.  "Autism is part of that training."

Zone 9 requires new recruits to go through 21 hours of mental health training.  Part of it teaches them how to recognize someone with ASD, and how to respond accordingly.

"We have police instructors and local resources from the community who come in and present material to the new recruits that teach them and show them how to identify the individuals that have mental illness," said Lt. Kiroy.

"Since it's a spectrum, it looks different for everyone," said Genie Denton.

Denton says worrying about her son, Gideon, experiencing what 14-year-old Connor Leible did in Arizona is constant.

"We want him to live a full life but at the same time, we want to keep him safe and keep everyone else safe," said Denton.  "I think things can go south very fast and that would be terrible for the law enforcement to live with and unimaginable for the family."

Assemblyman Santabarbara said the state legislature did not take up these bills last session.  He hopes come January, they will be taken up early.  He told Local 22 and Local 44's Megan Carpenter that Governor Andrew Cuomo has already called his office, expressing interest in the bills.

Vermont's procedures on mental health training for law enforcement:

Local 22 and Local 44's Megan Carpenter spoke with Vermont State Police Lt. Maurice Lamothe out of the St. Albans barracks.  He has been with VSP for about 19 years.  He says all troopers, sheriff's deputies, and municipal police officer recruits must complete 8 hours of mental health training immediately.  Multiple blocks of training also take place over the course of 5 months.  This training is both verbal and scenario-based.  

Troopers must complete two one-hour blocks of online training each year, specifically covering how to recognize someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and how to respond accordingly.  Each trooper must pass the test above a 70%, or they must re-take it.  

Lt. Lamothe also says the St. Albans barracks has had an embedded mental health worker in that barracks for roughly the past year.  It is the only barracks currently for VSP to do this.  The male worker is from Northwest Counseling and Support Services.  He responds to 3/4 of all calls.  Lamothe confirms other barracks are in the process of doing this as well (Westminster, St. Johnsbury, Williston)..  He adds there are municipal police departments, such as St. Albans PD, that implement this tactic as well.     

Description of required training for incoming troopers, per Lt. Barbara Zonay, Director of Training and Recruiting for VSP: 

Taught by experienced police officers and professionals from the disability services field, this course will cover a variety of issues surrounding this sometimes controversial topic. Experts from many state and community agencies and advocates collaborated with VT officers to develop a curriculum that covers some basic ways to recognize a psychiatric or developmental disability and suggestions for positive ways to respond. Our main purpose for offering this training is to promote officer safety and the safety of all others involved. Other topics to be discussed include suicide risk factors, self-harming behaviors (ex. "cutting"), relevant laws and legal issues, stigma, resources and treatment options, and most importantly, de-escalation and communication skills. Officers will gain the skills needed to professionally and effectively interact with people in crisis.


More Stories

Latest News

Video Center