Friday, July 09, 2010

Police "Open Season" on those with Autism?

Is sitting in public a crime for those with autism?

Claudia Kalb

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In late May, Clifford Grevemberg had a traumatic encounter with the police. Grevemberg, 18, was standing outside the Rock House Bar and Grill in Tybee Island, Ga., waiting for his brother to pick up some cheeseburgers when he was approached by officers, Tasered, and arrested for disorderly conduct. A police-department report posted by the Savannah Morning News says Grevemberg was “staggering back and forth and appeared to be either intoxicated or on something.” By the time his brother came out of the restaurant, Grevemberg was handcuffed and bleeding with a broken tooth. Only then did police receive the critical information they’d been missing: Clifford Grevemberg is autistic.

Three days later, and several hundred miles to the north, the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia had its own disturbing clash with autism. After receiving a call about a “suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun,” sitting on the grass outside an elementary-school library, officers confronted Reginald Latson, 18, who is African-American and has Asperger’s disorder. Latson wound up being charged with assault and battery after he “proceeded to attack and assault the deputy,” according to a police report. No gun was ever found. Details of the incident are complex and still evolving, but the preliminary reports were enough to gain attention from members of the autistic community who worry their children could be next. In the words of one mother, this story is “my nightmare.”

Law enforcement and autism are a volatile mix, and not an uncommon one. “It happens quite regularly, unfortunately,” says Lee Grossman, president of the Autism Society, a grassroots organization based in Bethesda, Md. Decades ago, people with autism and other developmental disorders tended to land in institutions, where they had little interaction with anybody other than family members and staff. Today, autistic children and adults live with their families, go to local schools and, in some cases, get jobs in their communities. The unfortunate downside to this independence, says Grossman, is that “many more individuals on the spectrum are having run-ins with the police department and others, and it’s generally not a very positive experience.”

Had Georgia police known about Clifford Grevemberg’s diagnosis before their encounter, they might have acted differently. Since the incident, local police officers have attended an educational session on autism. But that won’t resolve what happened to Grevemberg. In June, he and his mother filed a lawsuit against the city.

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