Friday, July 25, 2008

Building Bridges with the Police, the Criminal Justice System and Society

As I've observed, autistic people and Aspies are less likely to commit serious crimes, if only because we tend to be strict rule-followers. As I've also made clear, these are tendencies: some of us have such difficulties with empathy and/or judgment as to commit serious crimes. For example, at a recent meeting of the Asperger Adults of Greater Washington, we discussed a young man who so loved Volvos that he took other people's Volvos on joyrides - always from the same parking lot, and he always returned them there, always with the gas replenished. Still, it's generally considered grand theft.

More broadly, we may get into run-ins with the police even when we're not doing anything seriously wrong. For example, some people may be unnerved by our unusual mannerisms and complain to the police. Or, we may fail to grasp someone's subtle signals that s/he doesn't want to hear from us anymore - such as simply not returning our calls or emails - and instead of just telling us straight out, in so many words, s/he may figure we've "already been told," consider our continued calling or emailing to be harassment, and call the police. Or, a police officer may see us, assume by our manner that we're nervous simply because the police are around, and wonder if we're up to something like smuggling drugs or "casing" the area for a robbery.

Or, for that matter, the citizens and the police may see one essential role of the police as discouraging offensive behavior even though it's legal. It's quite likely just because the citizens want offensive behavior suppressed by any means not obviously illegal, albeit possibly (or also) out of concern that if offensive behavior is tolerated, criminals may assume that the same goes for actual crime.

In any case, once a police officer approaches one of us, there is further potential for trouble. For example, many of us, like some epileptics, have serious problems with flashing lights and will do anything possible to flee them and may freeze up if we can't flee. Some of us may have trouble speaking under the best of circumstances, let alone under such stress, and thus may "clam up" when questioned by a police officer.

We are not accustomed to using body language appropriate to our feelings, so either our body language is inconsistent with our pleas of innocence and the officer figures that actions speak louder than words, or we have learned appropriate body language but it does not come naturally to us, and the officer picks up on it and figures we're trying to hide something.

One of the most important areas of common ground we need to build is between autistic people and Aspies, and the police. We need to (1) act as much as possible in ways that will not be serious misinterpreted by citizens and the police (including recognizing, as well as we can, subtle signals from them), (2) accommodate to our own situation in order to minimize trouble should it occur, such as by carrying an autism identification card and practicing showing it to police and (3) advocate for appropriate accommodations by the police, courts and others.

Dennis Debbaudt, an NT with an autistic son, is part of the solution. He has two sites dedicated to his training practice of helping the police work better with autistic people and Aspies...and vice versa.

One example of reforms for which we can lobby: training for police in recognizing and dealing with autistic people and Aspies. This year, Illinois joined a growing number of states (Florida, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) which now require at least new police officers to receive such training. In fact, some communities in Illinois are going further than that: for example, in the wake of an incident in Wilmette in which an autistic teenager took food from a market just as if he were at home and could not respond to police questioning, police there now carry flash cards to communicate with autistic people.

We should certainly press for police to receive appropriate training in dealing with autistic people and Aspies. One example Debbaudt gives is avoiding figures of speech like "What have you got up your sleeve?" because an autistic or Aspie individual is likely to say "my arm" - and probably be perceived as a defiant smart-mouth.

Trust me, if a police officer is talking to you on an official basis, you do not want him or her to have that image of you.

We should also press for due process on all levels of the system, from the initial stop and questioning by police to detention, release on bail and consideration of the evidence in court. While obviously any individual case needs to be handled on its merits by the appropriate defense attorney, we tend to do much better the less the police, magistrates, prosecutors and judges are swayed by personal perceptions and sympathies (their own or complaining citizens') and the more they stick to the law. We tend to master the details and stick to the rules, so once we know in black and white what's expected we can walk the walk and talk the talk.

However, the more people assume that the police should have discretion to stop and question anyone who "makes them [or citizens] nervous" because the police necessarily have good instincts and good motives, or that because Mary complains about John, he must have done something wrong to her, or because many people complain about John "when there's smoke there's fire" or that because the police decided to stop and question or even arrest John that he must be guilty, the more of us are going to get into trouble. We, like any unpopular minority, need to rely on the protections of the law. Being in other people's good graces is not our strong suit, generally speaking.

But - it's not a one-way street.

For example, Debbaudt's sites include advice for us as well as for police. For example, if approached by police, we must not attempt to flee. We must also avoid any sudden movements, because the police will assume the worst - that we are reaching for a weapon or about to flee. The less cause we give police to be nervous, other things being equal the better off we will be.

We, like all other citizens, have rights, and those rights have sprung in large part from the experiences of other unpopular minorities in the past. We must not be inhibited from exercising those rights even if we need them disproportionately. After all, people with unusual political views or religious beliefs should not be inhibited from exercising their rights even though they will need them much more often than those with much more conventional mindsets. We do, as a society, believe in large part - even if we haven't always honored our own credo in practice - that we must protect the rights of the unpopular and the nonconformist if we are to protect the rights of anyone.

But we also have an obligation to the larger society to make our exercise of our rights less burdensome whenever possible. We must also recognize, and limit as much as possible, certain traits of ours that give others good cause to be apprehensive even when we mean no harm, not to mention those which, if unchecked, could indeed cause harm.

What do you think?


Medic61 said...

I think it's wonderful that there are people working towards building bridges between the two communities. As an EMT working in stressful situations, I have to say that it is often difficult to think of the other side's point of view. I'm focused on accomplishing my goals (controlling bleeding, or perhaps putting someone on a backboard), and I often forget to explain things, or think of what my patient/my patient's family might need to hear from me. I come in contact with many different groups of people, so it is hard to be cognizant of what each group may need. However, I (personally) will work on being more aware of these things!
Thanks for this post, Jeff :)

Jeff Deutsch said...

Hello Sam,

You're more than welcome.

Bearing in mind that you work in many of the same situations as the police do - sometimes, no doubt, side by side with them - some of the resources they use can help you. For example, EMTs can certainly use training in recognizing and working with autistic people and Aspies.

You and your colleagues may also be interested in _Verbal Judo_, a program started up to help the police - in fact, the officers who beat Rodney King had been scheduled to attend Verbal Judo the following week!

There's a book by the same name by the founder, Dr. George Thompson - an English professor turned police officer! I've read it myself, and I know it's helped me in stressful situations.

Jeff Deutsch

PS: I'd also recommend that book as a general interpersonal skills resource for Aspies.