By Nancy Hokkanen
If anything good might come from the senseless July 18 shooting of group home aide Charles Kinsey, it would be to shock more citizens into becoming advocates for civil rights and preventing gun violence.
The incident also spotlights (1) the need for autism awareness information that reaches all police forces and the crime-reporting public, and (2) educational content that portrays a broader representation of real-world autistic behaviors.
Kinsey, a behavior therapist, was shot once in the leg by a police officer while trying to retrieve Arnaldo Rios-Soto, a young man with autism who had run away from a group home. Police were first called to the scene by 911 callers who misinterpreted the two men’s interactions. One call described a “possible suicidal man with a gun” – yet neither man was armed, and Rios-Soto was just holding a toy truck.
One video taken before the shooting shows Kinsey, who is black, lying on the ground on his back, empty hands in the air, calmly explaining the situation to North Miami police officer Jonathan Aledda. “All he has is a toy truck. A toy truck. I am a behavioral therapist at a group home,” Kinsey told the officer.
That video does not show what Officer Aledda did next: he fired three shots, one of which hit Kinsey, who was then handcuffed and left on the ground bleeding for 20 minutes. Later from his hospital bed Kinsey recalled, “I’m saying, ‘Sir, why did you shoot me?’ and his words to me were, ‘I don’t know.’” Officer Aledda, a SWAT team member, said in his official statement, “I did what I had to do in a split second.”
Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who also is black, said seeing the video “felt like a nightmare”: “If you’re ever stopped by the police — freeze, don’t move. That’s number one on the brochure that we created... What else could we have told him? What could have saved him from being shot?”
Members of the advocacy group The Circle of Brotherhood visited the North Miami police station July 20 asking for answers about Kinsey's case.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and state attorney’s office are investigating the shooting. Commander Emile Hollant was suspended without pay after giving conflicting statements to investigators. Miami-Dade police union rep John Rivera claimed Officer Aleddo had actually been trying to save Kinsey’s life – instead he had actually aimed at the autistic man. Disability advocates have justifiably been outraged over the horrific ethical and civil rights implications of that statement.
“To say that we didn’t mean to shoot the African-American guy, we meant to shoot the guy with the disability, makes the person’s life worth nothing,” said Matthew Dietz, an attorney for the Soto family. Dietz said Rios-Soto was held almost four hours in a police car and is traumatized.
What conditions in law enforcement departments might have contributed to this seemingly inexplicable shooting?
Human rights advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union note the increased militarization of local police forces since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. To deal with local terror cells, law enforcement departments nationwide have received increased funding to purchase heavy equipment such as tanks and helicopters, and surveillance devices such as drones and hand-held facial recognition units.
Gun range practice involves repetition, the shooting of hundreds of bullets, which reinforces motor skills. But what are the full effects of repeatedly firing at human targets? Coincidentally – or not – last year North Miami police suspended a sniper training program that used old mug shots of black suspects during target practice. One day when Army Sgt. Valerie Deant used the range, to her horror she saw a photograph of her brother with a bullet through his head. It’s reasonable to assume that repeated use of such photographs could cause negative psychological conditioning, to the point of racism.
Granted, the “split second” decision to shooting that Officer Aledda emphasized is just that. Leading to one’s decision to shoot are thought processes based on our cultural filters and related emotions. The recent tit-for-tat shootings of police and black men evoke hair-trigger emotions, which can connect too quickly with trigger fingers. Also affecting officers’ judgment are military-style carry-over problems such as PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, and misuse of psychotropic medications.
One expert on the use of lethal force is Massad Ayoob, author of In The Gravest Extreme: The Role of the Firearm in Personal Protection. A shooter may be adversely affected by startle reflex, postural disturbance, or inter-limb response. “In a stressful moment like this, any number of stimuli can cause a convulsion of the trigger finger that kills an unarmed man who has just surrendered to you,” Ayoob said.
Where can police departments learn to recognize the attributes of autism?
- In Miami, the Disability Independence Group offers free training and identification tools for both the Autistic Community and law enforcement, which we developed in conjunction with the Coral Gables Police Department and UM/NSU Card.
- For more than 20 years Dennis Debbaudt of Autism Risk and Safety Management has provided training for law enforcement and emergency responders.
- The National Autism Association offers a variety of autism safety information, such as wandering.
- Some autism parents have brought their children to their local police stations, introduced themselves, and explained their child’s behaviors.
One big roadblock involves shifting current budgetary priorities. Leon County, Florida Sheriff Mike Wood said in the past two years, additional police training about autistic individuals failed due to cost. Florida spends $67 annually per officer. “There are circumstances like that that aren’t necessarily with evil intent, but when you have a lack of training, a lack of preparation, these things occur,” Wood said.
For Gladys Soto, mother of Arnaldo Rios-Soto, the priority is clear: Educate. “When they see a person with autism rocking on the ground, sitting cross-legged with a truck, rocking back and forth, they should have known that we may have a person with autism here,” said Soto.
Nancy Hokkanen is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.