The officers are taught that flashing lights and sirens can be overstimulating and just turning them off could ease the situation. They are also encouraged to remain calm, avoid physically confronting the person and to engage specially trained officers from a mental health crisis team, if their department has one.
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The training can also create “a sense of empathy” and emphasizes that other methods like shouting or grabbing a suspect, “can hyper-escalate someone who is autistic,” Rick Smith, Axon’s founder and CEO, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“Rather than just training police how to use a Taser, maybe we should train them how to avoid using it,” he said.
Police departments large and small have had difficulties responding to calls involving autistic people.
In Graham, Texas, about 120 miles (195 kilometers) west of Dallas, a 19-year-old man was throwing rocks at his neighbor’s fence. The autistic teenager, Michael Moore, had difficulty communicating with the responding police officers, so they guessed he might have been drunk or high. They tried to give him a field sobriety test and when he failed the test, they moved in to arrest him. A struggle ensued. Body camera video shows the teen, whose mother says he has a “high functioning” form of autism, being shot with a Taser and thrown to the ground.
“When the officers approached him, he tried to maintain contact,” his mother, Tracie Brown, said. “It’s very hard for people with autism.”
“His hands were visible at all times and he kept saying over and over, ‘My mama is inside. Let me go get my mom’ and for whatever reason the police officers refused to come and verify,” she said.
Brent Bullock, Graham’s interim chief, said all of his 25 officers underwent autism training after the incident and were given field guides to identify whether someone may have autism or be suffering from a mental health crisis.
“I believe it was a positive thing,” he said. Since then, his officers have encountered similar situations and managed to de-escalate them, Bullock said.
Axon plans to provide autism training free with the purchase of Taser devices. Hundreds of law enforcement agencies already use the company’s other products, like Tasers and body camera.
The virtual reality experience may be more effective for officers than conventional training, Smith said, because officers can feel what it would be like to be on the other side of the encounter and may be more likely to remember it.
“By putting them through this training, we’re giving the officers a chance to learn through experience, which we know is a much more effective way than just trying to remember some checklist they may have been taught in the academy,” Smith said.