Alexander & Kincart: Stop Policing Mental Illness and Neurodivergence


Piper Armstrong

(Design by Piper Armstrong | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By CJ Alexander and Sydney Kincart


Nearly half of the people police officers kill have a mental or physical disability. This grim reality can’t continue. With 1 in 54 Utah children being diagnosed with autism, any police encounters they have will likely result in serious harm. It’s also worth noting that Black disabled individuals have a higher risk of being killed by an officer, given that “the combination of disability and skin color amounts to a double bind.”

As the nation reckons with police brutality and attempts to improve police departments across the country, Utah is taking a step further. Utah Rep. Steve Eliason introduced a bill that mandates police training on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and crisis intervention for mental illness, which took effect in May. Despite these advancements, police are not fully equipped in handling neurodivergence and need more than just training.

To put it in perspective, there is no shortage of instances where Utah police have mishandled interactions with the neurodivergent and disabled. Last year alone, 40% of the people shot by police were experiencing a mental health event.

For instance, a 13-year-old kid was shot in Salt Lake City following a mental breakdown. The boy, who was evading arrest by running away, did not need to be shot at all. The botched arrest led to an uproar and examination of police abuse with neurodivergence, and eventually, Rep. Eliason’s bill. However, these steps of improvement don’t hinder the fact that Utah police have a history of ableism and brutality against mental illness. It should not take the injury or death of another disabled or neurodivergent individual for police to be properly trained. It’s despicable that it has even come to this.

Under Rep. Eliason’s bill, police will be required to complete neurodivergence and mental health training. This legislation seeks to help police officers differentiate between behaviors indicative of illegal activities (drug use) and behaviors associated with ASD and other mental health crises. However, the bill fails to specify what officers will be learning and any type of measurement to analyze the change in officer behavior and conduct. This vagueness and lack of structure are reasons to be skeptical of the bill’s actual effectiveness.

In Utah, a few police departments are stepping up their game by adopting Project Safeguard, which is an online program promoting “communication and … quick access to important information about a person with a disability.” The program differs from legislation as it offers specific information to the police for a neurodivergent individual, including description, behaviors and known triggers.

Through Project Safeguard, a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) will be sent out in the event of a mental health crisis. This CIT will be educated and experienced with knowledge surrounding ASD and mental illnesses. Project Safeguard is helping these departments understand autism and mental illnesses, but because only a few are actively participating, there is still work to be done.

For starters, we need to examine disparities in diagnosis. Black individuals are less likely to be diagnosed with ASD than their white counterparts, leading to police mishandling or outright abusing situations with people of color.

Improvements in diagnosis disparity can help facilitate the integration of other preventative measures for police violence. For example, some states are adding an optional license designation for diagnosed communication barriers and health conditions — including ASD. This designation can help police respond to situations and behaviors that may be unfamiliar to them.

There also needs to be better support for disabled individuals so that calling the police isn’t necessary. Specially trained health professionals or social workers should work alongside police officers on mental health crisis calls. The objective should be to de-escalate situations where a person is experiencing a mental health emergency. Addressing disparities in health care is vital to any legislation hoping to combat police abuse in times of crisis.

Above all, continuous training is necessary. A “one-and-done” training on crisis intervention won’t change deeply held perceptions about neurodivergence and mental health conditions. Police seem to be satisfied and feel well equipped in their knowledge of ASD after training, yet autistic individuals report feeling unhappy in their interactions with law enforcement.

Effective training bridges this gap, and clearly, it’s not happening, nor is this bill enough. To make real change, we should decrease interaction between autistic people and the police. Let’s leave these encounters to trained social workers who are better equipped to handle these crises.


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