The facts are alarming. According to a recent study, one-third to one-half of all individuals killed by law enforcement has disabilities or mental health conditions. Those are disturbing statistics, especially for parents of children with special needs like actress and activist Holly Robinson-Peete who is raising a teenager with autism. Her 19-year-old son, R.J., is becoming increasingly independent; he just got his driver’s license and is excited to begin driving on his own.
“The fears we all have about our children interacting with law enforcement are compounded because our children don’t process verbal cues the same way typical kids do,” Robinson-Peete explained.
An innovative new program called Spectrum Shield, launched in Agua Dulce, is addressing this growing concern. Members of the LAPD and other law enforcement officers joined a group of teens and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) January 27-29 for a weekend of training at “Beyond the Label” ranch. The facility is operated by the Culver City-based Wiley Center.
Founder and CEO Dr. Pamela Wiley is a leader in treating children with ASD and other special needs from childhood to adulthood for more than 35 years. She organized the program in partnership with D.O.P.E. (De-escalating Officer Patrol Encounters) and Robinson-Peete with the hope of saving lives.
“This type of real life engagement can ultimately de-escalate a potentially deadly situation,” Dr. Wiley said. “Our overall objective is to promote trust, greater awareness, and positive dialogue to ensure the safety of all children regardless of race, zip code, ability or disability.”
Weekend of Learning
Twelve young men with ASD from Dr. Wiley’s LA Speech and Language Therapy Center spent the weekend interacting with LAPD officers and engaging in a series of exercises designed to help them safely react to verbal and non-verbal cues during police encounters. The training benefitted officers, too, helping them to become more familiar with the characteristics associated with Autism, which affects one in 68 people and is a lifelong condition. A range of behaviors is present in varying degrees affecting communication, behavior, sensory input and social interaction; there is no one face of Autism.
Stan Campbell, founder of D.O.P.E., was the lead trainer. He worked with the kids along with an officer colleague and four active LAPD officers in a relaxed setting to reduce the anxiety often associated with police encounters. They discussed the critical role that gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions play in defining our intentions. The officers explained how they are trained to look for atypical movements and behaviors and how something like nervous laughter could be misconstrued as disrespect for the law.
“The training was really eye-opening,” Campbell said. “We got to see how each child reacted slightly differently to our commands.”
In addition to video modeling, guided instruction, and role playing various police related encounters the weekend also included a surprise visit with L.A. Rams defensive end William Hayes, and television actress and autism advocate Tisha Campbell Martin. Xerox Corporation funded the program.
Spectrum Shield was inspired by a roundtable discussion on law enforcement and children with ASD that took place during an October taping of Robinson-Peete’s program, “For Peete’s Sake,” which airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The panel included Holly and Rodney Peete, founders of the HollyRod Foundation, Dr. Wiley, two retired law enforcement officers, a producer whose family has been touched by police violence, and Charles Kinsey and his attorney.
Police in North Miami shot Kinsey, a behavior therapist, last July as he tried to calm a client with ASD. Despite Mr. Kinsey’s full disclosure that the young man on the ground with whom he was struggling had Autism, the officer claimed to have been aiming for the young man and mistakenly shot Mr. Kinsey. (The roundtable discussion airs during an upcoming episode of “For Peete’s Sake,” Feb. 18 on the Oprah Winfrey Network.)
After the two-hour dialogue, Dr. Wiley was drained yet exhilarated. Her mind raced thinking of the many children and families she works with each day; specifically her African American males who, unfortunately, are more vulnerable to negative outcomes with police encounters. She knew something had to be done.
“I believe that we all have a part to play to affect the change that we want to see,” she says. “Providing opportunities for law enforcement to become familiar with our young people and for children with ASD to become familiar with law enforcement is essential in this process. We know that in the absence of meaningful and positive contact we rely on stereotypes. These stereotypes can lead to fear, which often results in unnecessary violence.”
At the workshop’s close, Dr. Wiley and Mr. Campbell facilitated a debriefing with all participants and the young men’s parents. There, Dr. Wiley emphasized the boys “must practice how to remain calm and focused in intense and unfamiliar situations and provide appropriate verbal responses within their capability.”
Dr. Wiley also counseled the parents: “You’ve invested a lot of time, money, and physical and emotional energy into helping your children become independent. You now need to help them to cross the finish line safely.”
She recommends doing the following on a regular basis:
- Discuss various “what if” scenarios to determine the real level of understanding.
- Ask probing questions like, “What do you think a police officer may think when you do or say….?”
- Engage in frank discussions about fears or anxieties that may be related to law enforcement.
- Reinforce the importance of listening and following instructions; help them understand the difference between a request and a command. Some things are non-negotiable!
The weekend was a resounding success. Planning is already underway for the next Spectrum Shield workshop to be held in April at Beyond the Label ranch.
For more information about programs and services offered by Dr. Wiley and her team in Agua Dulce and in Los Angeles, visit speakla.com/Spectrum-Shield or call (310) 649-6199.