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Alex was 5’9 and every bit of 200 lbs. He was “uncontrollable” and destroying his family’s home. We arrived to find Alex’s grandmother on the front porch. Her arms were literally purple with bruises; the aftermath of one of Alex’s tantrums earlier in the month. She directed us inside where Alex’s mother was trying in vain to calm him down. We found him in the basement lying on his back. Mom was trying to hold his hands. She was crying. She was sweating. She was bleeding. Around him were toddler toys: Elmo dolls, a ring-toss game, coloring books. There were no toddlers in the house. The toys were Alex’s. Alex was 14 years old. He had Autism.
In recent months there have been many high profile incidents concerning police using force to deal with children and adults on the Spectrum:
-Police Taser Autistic Teen and Then, After Family Complains, Return and Arrest Teen
-Teen with autism shot to death by police
-Autistic Man with Toy Gun Killed by Miami Police Officers
The most gut-wrenching of these incidents involved a young man named Stephon Watts. Stephon, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, was shot and killed by police in Calumet City, Ill on February 1st, 2012 after he slashed an officer with a kitchen knife. This incident has gained national attention and stirred outrage within the ASD community. I would like to offer my perspective.
I am a 16 year-veteran police officer. I am a police K9 handler and trainer with 12 years experience in searching for wandering ASD individuals. I am also an Autism Dad.
I see my son in the eyes of every ASD individual I meet. After I met Alex and we finally got him under control, I pulled my patrol car off the road and cried for 30 minutes. Believe me when I tell you, I fully understand both sides of the Stephon Watts incident.
Police officers are not diagnosticians. Our job is public safety. Our role is to protect the physical safety of the public we serve. But make no mistake, our primary focus is on our own family and surviving our shift to return home to them. Police officers make dozens of split second decisions a day. Many of them involve life and death. Sometimes we get it wrong. Most of the time we get it right. Tragically, on occasion, we get it right but still suffer the haunting agony that follows from ending a human life. I do not know the Calumet City police officers who shot and killed Stephon. There will be an Internal Affairs Investigation to determine the propriety of their actions. I am confident, however, that they are grieving today. They are questioning themselves and they are praying for forgiveness to whatever God they believe in. I pray for them and I pray for Stephon and his family. And I ask that you do to.
Statistics show that Special Needs individuals are seven times more likely to interact with the police than neurotypical individuals. We are professionals. We can do better. We can increase our awareness and improve our training in dealing with Special Needs individuals. Today I make a solemn promise to Stephon’s family and my own. I will do my part.
Jerry Turning, Jr. was born and raised in New Jersey. He has lived on the Jersey Shore his entire life. Jerry graduated from the University of Delaware (Go Hens!) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology (1995) and earned his Masters Degree in Organizational Management from the University of Phoenix (2009) while working and raising a family. Jerry is a police Lieutenant in a municipal police department and has spent the majority of his career in K9. He is a certified police K9 Handler and Trainer. Jerry and his wife Jo-Ann were married in 1998 and they have two amazing kids: Anna (born in 2001, although you’d think she was 22) and Eric (born in 2004). Eric was diagnosed with Autism at 2.5 years old. Jerry recently began spilling his guts about the past 5 years struggling and celebrating the world of Autism in his personal blog, Bacon and Juice Boxes: Our Life With Autism. In what ever free time he has (read that as -- not much!), he enjoys cycling, running, and his most recent therapeutic obsession: triathlon training