A War on the Unexpected

In November 2007, security consultant Bruce Schneier wrote an article for Wired.com entitled The War on the Unexpected, which he opened with the following paragraph:

We’ve opened up a new front on the war on terror. It’s an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it’s a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested — even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

As the parent of a soon-to-be-adult son with autism, the words I’ve highlighted in Schneier’s quote above seemed to jump out at me.  All of them apply to my son, and I’m sure to many – if not all – autistic children and adults. This article came back to my mind as I read Kristina’s post Arrested: The Charge? Bad Behavior, in which she describes the arrest of a 13 year old autistic boy and a 19 year old man with fetal alcohol syndrome.  This is, of course, not the first such incident to have happened, only the most recent that I’ve become aware of.

There is a legitimate issue concerning what consideration, if any, should be given to a person’s autism diagnosis with respect to criminal activity.  (See, for example, the case of Gary McKinnon.)  But all too often people with autism are approached, and often apprehended, by law enforcement personnel simply because they are “acting weird” and making bystanders “uncomfortable”.

In his article, Schneier has two recommendations to stop this war on the unexpected.

We need to do two things. The first is to stop urging people to report their fears. People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so. But encouraging people to raise an alarm every time they’re spooked only squanders our security resources and makes no one safer.

Equally important, politicians need to stop praising and promoting the officers who get it wrong. And everyone needs to stop castigating, and prosecuting, the victims just because they embarrassed the police by their innocence.

More awareness by the public at large, and law enforcement specifically, about autism and autistics is key to at least remove autism and autistics from the category of “unexpected”.

Autism and New Jersey law enforcement

Over the weekend, Kristina Chew wrote about yet another tasing of an autistic teenager, and mentions a bill in New Jersey to promote autism training for first responders. While that bill makes its way through the New Jersey state legislature, first responders in Hillsborough, NJ are taking the initiative getting the training for themselves.

From Cops learn about autism to help prevent tragedy:

With more than 1,200 children and adults diagnosed with autism in the township — and thousands more in neighboring communities — Hillsborough police officers are reaching out to better serve those families during serious law-enforcement situations.

Hillsborough police Chief Paul Kaminsky recently participated in a four-hour seminar, “Autism Shield Program for Autism Recognition and Response.” Its goal: To educate police officers and first-responders with an awareness and understanding of autism and how to teach and live with those affected, said Gary Weitzen, executive director of Parents of Autistic Children, also known as POAC.

Some thoughts from Chief Kaminsky and what his department is trying to do:

“All of our officers (there are 56 law-enforcement officers in the Hillsborough Police Department) have been trained concerning identifying and dealing with individuals with autism,” Kaminsky said. “With autism being a part of our community and school system, we thought it was important that all our officers be thoroughly trained with the recognition and proper response with people with autism.”

As a result, Hillsborough’s police department recently has developed an Emergency Data Information base, which allows parents or guardians of special-needs children (and adults) to voluntarily complete a data sheet and return it to the police department.

The Emergency Data Sheet then provides law-enforcement officers with “essential information” — such as basic identifying information; emergency contact information; means of communication; best way to interact; specific fears or concerns the person might have when approached; sensory or medical issues; and attractions.

If you haven’t already, you should think about giving your local PD and FD a call and see what they are doing in this regard, and what you can do to help.

Rationality and emotions

How much does rational thinking influence your opinion on something? How about emotional thinking? Since this is a blog (mostly) about autism, you may think that is leading up to something in the vaccine/autism debate, but in this case I’m talking about a technology intended to help law enforcement catch criminals.

From the Wired.com article A New DNA Test Can ID a Suspect’s Race, but Police Won’t Touch It:

Frudakis’ test is called DNAWitness. It examines DNA from 176 locations along the genome. Particular sequences at these points are found primarily in people of African heritage, others mainly in people of Indo-European, Native American, or South Asian descent. No one sequence can perfectly identify a person’s origin. But by looking at scores of markers, Frudakis says he can predict ancestry with a tiny margin of error.

DNAWitness has been used nationally in nearly 200 criminal investigations. In several, the science played a crucial role in narrowing the suspect field, ultimately leading to an arrest. But its success hasn’t made the technology popular with law enforcement.

“Once we start talking about predicting racial background from genetics, it’s not much of a leap to talking about how people perform based on their DNA — why they committed that rape or stole that car or scored higher on that IQ test,” says Troy Duster, former president of the American Sociological Association.

“This is analyzing data derived from a crime scene,” Frudakis counters. “It’s just a way for police to narrow down their suspect lists.” But his position, rational as it may be, is no match for the emotions that surface with any pairing of race and crime.

Tony Clayton, a black man and a prosecutor who tried one of the Baton Rouge murder cases, concedes the benefits of the test: “Had it not been for Frudakis, we would still be looking for the white guy in the white pickup.” Nevertheless, Clayton says he dislikes anything that implies we don’t all “bleed the same blood.” He adds, “If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would.”

While this story is not about autism, I couldn’t help but think of the mercury/vaccine debate when rationality was pitted against emotionalism. Both sides of the debate show their fair share of both, often accusing the other side of being overly emotional as a derogatory method of countering an argument (which, in all likelihood, is seen as rational by the one making the argument).

Which gets me back to the question that came to mind as I read the story and am curious what others think: In a situation when rational thought tells you one thing, is it OK to let your emotions rule your decision?

Autism and law enforcement

I’ve written about autism and law enforcement before, but in a time when it is becoming increasingly dangerous to be different it is worth mentioning again. The catalyst for this particular post is the NY Times article Helping Police Officers Understand Autism, which talks about the ongoing efforts of Dennis Debbaudt (who is an autism dad and, as it turns out, also provided the inspiration for my previous post on the topic).

Some key points from the article:

  • People with developmental disabilities, including autism, have up to seven times more contact with law enforcement officers than others, according to an article in the F.B.I. Law Enforcement Bulletin in April 2001.
  • [W]hen Mr. Debbaudt asked whether any of the police officers, from departments throughout New Jersey, had received training on autism, either at police academies or on the job, only a few raised their hands.
  • Mr. Debbaudt said he had heard of 6 to 12 cases each year in which people with autism are harmed, hit with a stun gun or killed by law enforcement officials. He cited the case of Calvin Champion Jr., a 32-year-old man with autism who died in 2000 after Nashville police officers used pepper spray on him and subdued him.
  • “We’ve heard from families as well as from professionals that they just need more instruction, certainly in terms of first responders understanding that a person with autism may not respond appropriately or may not respond at all when given a command,” she said.
  • A bill cosponsored by [NJ] State Senator Loretta Weinberg would require autism awareness programs statewide for emergency medical technicians, police officers and firefighters. The bill was passed by the Assembly in March, and awaits action in the State Senate.

That last bullet sounds like a good idea that should be spread across the country to every state. (I’m going to see what, if anything, is being done here in Missouri.)

If you are the parent or caregiver of an autistic person, or if you work in law enforcement, you owe it to your self to check out Debbaudt’s sites: Autism Risk and Safety Management and Police and Autism – Avoiding Unfortunate Situations.