On November 12, 2014, Troy Canales was standing outside of his home in the Bronx minding his own business. At the time, he was 18 years old and had been living with autism for years.
When two NYPD officers drove by, Troy’s life changed forever. A lawsuit filed by DNA Info alleges that officers grabbed his arms, threw him to the ground, kneed him in the back, and punched him in the face. Troy’s mother responded to his screams and alerted the police that he was autistic. Troy was then taken into custody, and only after his mother, Alyson Aulet-Valentine, begged for her son to be released, was he let go without any charges. The hour he spent in custody was very scary for him. The department gave no explanation of why he had been assaulted.
In the suit, attorney Carmen Giordano wrote
The New York City Police Department’s practices, procedures, training and rules, including those in the NYPD Patrol Guide, do not account for, instruct on, delineate, or provide guidelines for Police Officer communication and interaction with people with developmental disabilities and autism in a constitutionally adequate manner.
Officers claim that Troy led them to fear for their lives.
Despite his quick release, Troy reportedly was deeply affected by the incident. His mother states that he is panicked around police officers, isolates himself, and has become withdrawn. She has taught him to protect himself around officers by putting his hands up when he sees them.
This is just one of many incidents that have gone wrong. Earlier this year, Kayleb Moon-Robinson was a 6th grader with autism when officers sicced their trained attack dog on him after he became angry and kicked a trashcan. Last September an autistic Michigan boy was handcuffed and strapped to a gurney after a tantrum.
Incidents like these may be easily avoided if police officers are properly trained to recognize symptoms of disabilities and mental disorders. AutismSpeaks is a great resource, and they even have a page dedicated to training officers with many resources at the bottom.
But here is an even more radical idea: create a separate task force to respond to non-violent 911 calls and reserve the police for armed conflicts and other situations that require special tactical training and the potential use of force. A response unit staffed by social workers, therapists, drug counselors, domestic violence workers, and child welfare professionals could more safely, more efficiently, and more effectively manage a wide range of calls. These professionals are already trained, many at the master’s level, to recognize signs of mental illness, substance abuse, and child abuse. Employing social welfare professionals for social welfare matters could potentially reduce the number of police incidents that result in the use of force when all is needed is skilled negotiation, counseling, and a link to social services.
While some departments are encouraging social worker ride-alongs to non-violent 911 calls, this needs to be taken a step further. Many communities feel so threatened by the police due to the long history of escalated conflict, police brutality, and even murder by cop, that even the presence of an armed officer is likely to escalate a situation. Many officers feel so threatened by the community due to the long history of police murders, gangs targeting officers, and the potential that there is a hidden weapon, that they are not able to respond calmly to a situation that threatens their ability to return to their family alive. By sending only trained mental health and social welfare professionals, the public will feel that they are being offered help, not being policed. They will feel hopeful, instead of desperate. They might even get the help they need, instead of getting arrested.
Kristen Anderson writes for Activist Post