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Closing Argument

When Police Encounters With Autistic People Turn Fatal

The death of a 15-year-old is once again raising questions about training on neurodivergent and mental health diagnoses among law enforcement agencies.

A close-up photo shows the shoulder of a deputy with a San Bernardino County sheriff patch.
A San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy fatally shot Ryan Gainer, an autistic Black 15-year-old, outside his home in Apple Valley, Calif. on March 9.

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Last Saturday, a San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Ryan Gainer, an autistic Black 15-year-old, outside his home in Apple Valley, California. The shooting, which is under investigation, came after Gainer chased the deputy with a large bladed garden tool, according to police and body camera footage released by the department. The teen’s family had called 911 when he became upset during a disagreement, broke a glass door and struck a relative. They told CNN that by the time deputies arrived, Ryan had calmed down and apologized.

The death has fueled outrage and refocused attention on the question of how emergency services respond to situations where people are in mental or emotional distress.

“The mix of race and disability status greatly increases the potential for deadly interactions with police,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. “Families shouldn’t have to think twice about calling for help, worrying whether it will end in tragedy.”

People with developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are, according to frequently cited government data, seven times more likely to encounter police than neurotypical people. That creates a lot of opportunities for tragic outcomes because there is a substantial overlap between the signs of ASD and behaviors that police are trained to view as suspicious. Some examples include avoiding eye contact, pacing or repeating words.

In other cases, a person with intellectual or developmental disabilities may be unable to understand or perform a command by police. “The officer very often will perceive that inability as a refusal,” University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, a former police officer, told NPR in 2019. That can escalate the situation.

There have been efforts nationwide to improve police training around developmental disabilities, some of which have been spearheaded by officers who are parents of autistic children. The efforts, though, are hardly comprehensive. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 11 states (including California) have police training requirements on autism spectrum disorder. A proposed law to increase training requirements in Florida died in committee last week.

There is little evidence for the efficacy of these kinds of training programs. In Modesto, California, police Lt. Joseph Bottoms told the Modesto Bee that it would be “very, very hard to collect” data on how many encounters officers have with people on the autism spectrum or the outcome of those encounters before and after training.

A new training program in Modesto is focusing on how neurodivergent people can experience sensory information differently. For many people with ASD, intense stimuli, like flashing lights and loud noises, can worsen a behavioral crisis. Often, these kinds of stimuli accompany an encounter with law enforcement.

Another effort that is catching on in some departments is the “Blue Envelope” program for neurodivergent motorists. The small packets contain the driver’s license, registration, and insurance card, along with information for an officer about the person’s diagnosis, triggers and impairments. The program has become especially popular in Massachusetts, where the state Senate earlier this year unanimously advanced a law that would make the blue envelopes available at police stations.

Other departments have established voluntary databases that allow families to provide information about “loved ones who have autism or are mentally ill or developmentally disabled” for use in emergencies. The databases are especially common in Illinois, where a state law has encouraged their growth.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office has one such program, but it’s unknown if the Gainer’s family participated. Regardless, both the family and the sheriff’s office said that deputies had responded to the family’s home on previous occasions and that the department was familiar with Gainer.

Autism isn’t the only condition that can affect police interactions. Many intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities, along with mental illness and drug use, can impact the way people respond and react to law enforcement. As my colleague Christie Thompson reported in 2022, dementia is increasingly becoming a factor in arrests around the country as the population ages. As a result, she noted, more cities are “questioning whether armed police are the right people to send to calls of people in mental distress.” Instead, some localities are launching community response teams staffed with social workers and mental health professionals.

In February, the U.S. Department of Justice endorsed efforts to get police out of the business of mental health emergencies. In a statement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke referred to police as a “less effective, potentially harmful” response to people experiencing mental health emergencies when compared to community response-style interventions.

Clarke’s comments came after a lawsuit filed by the ACLU last summer on behalf of the Washington, D.C., non-profit Bread for the City. The suit argued that the city’s 911 emergency services violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by sending armed police to confront people experiencing mental health emergencies.

It’s worth noting that anyone can experience a mental health emergency, but many cognitive and developmental disabilities, as well as mental illnesses, can make mental health emergencies more likely.

Staff at Bread for the City say that often when their clients are in crisis, the only way to get them help is to call 911, have police show up, handcuff them, and put them in a patrol car. Tracy Knight, who has led the social services program at the nonprofit for decades, told Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak, “It’s an unnecessary trauma for everyone involved.”

Update: This story was updated to include the latest figures from the National Conference of State Legislators about states that require certain police training.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.