Americans with autism and those with untreated mental illnesses both experience far more interactions with the police, according to studies. Many of those incidents are fatal.
When Utah mother Golda Barton called 911 on Friday, she asked emergency responders to send a crisis intervention team to help hospitalize her 13-year-old son, who has Asperger’s syndrome and was experiencing an outburst.
Her son, Linden Cameron, ended up hospitalized that night, but not in the way she imagined. Instead, a Salt Lake City police officer repeatedly shot the boy—who Barton said was unarmed—after he ran away, leaving him in serious condition with injuries to his stomach, intestines, shoulder, ankles, and more. Cameron even lost feeling in parts of his body, Barton told Utah’s KUTV in an emotional interview on Sunday.
“They’re supposed to come out and be able to de-escalate a situation using the most minimal force possible,” Barton said. “He’s a small child, why don’t you just tackle him?”
The incident has alarmed mental health advocates and others, who say it highlights the need for changes to how police respond to crises related to mental health as well neurological and developmental disorders.
Police, however, are not trained to deal with such issues. A 2015 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that new police recruits received only eight hours of “Crisis Intervention Training” on average—the mental health training program Barton expected officers would use with her son. In comparison, officers received nearly 60 hours of firearms training.
“We are asking police to do things that ideally the mental health system should be doing and we were asking them to take on an array of social service functions that they’re not trained to do,” Ron Honberg, the former Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told COURIER earlier this year. “The police shouldn’t be the ones to respond to a 911 call about someone who is having a mental health crisis, but has not committed a crime.”
While these calls often end with patients being hospitalized, they can also end with police violence, as they did with Barton’s son Cameron. Asperger’s syndrome is not a mental illness—it’s a form of autism, which is both neurological and developmental—but those with autism are also more likely to encounter the police. One 2017 study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University found that 20% of autistic teenagers have been stopped and questioned by police.
The experiences of people with untreated mental illnesses are even more stark. Since 2015, more than 22% of the roughly 5,600 people killed by law enforcement had a serious mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings.
The March case of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, highlights the fatal consequences of charging police with responding to mental health crises. Prude, a 29-year-old Black man, was showing signs of a mental health crisis, prompting his brother to call Rochester Police for help. Instead, they placed a hood over his head and held him on the ground until he stopped breathing. Prude was declared brain dead and died a week later. Video of the incident came to light last week, prompting outrage and protests in the city.
Barton, like Prude’s brother, called for help. She said she told the police over the phone that Cameron was experiencing an episode of separation anxiety after she returned to work for the first time in nearly a year. “I said, ‘He’s unarmed. He doesn’t have anything. He just gets mad and he starts yelling and screaming,’” Barton explained. “He’s a kid. He’s trying to get attention. He doesn’t know how to regulate.”
Police told her to stay outside while they entered the house. Less than five minutes later, gunshots rang out. Barton said that police handcuffed her son after the shooting and didn’t tell her that he was still alive, leaving her to think he had been killed.
“I thought my son was dead and they didn’t tell me he wasn’t dead,” she told KUTV.
Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Keith Horrocks told reporters on Friday they believed the boy might have been armed and that officers had received reports about “a juvenile that was having a mental episode, a psychotic episode, that had made threats to some folks with a weapon.”
Horrocks indicated that they found no weapon at the scene. The shooting is under investigation by outside investigators and KUTV reported Monday that police have said they won’t provide more details surrounding the shooting until they release body camera footage from the incident, which is required to happen before Monday, Sept. 21.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall vowed to get answers quickly. “No matter the circumstances, what happened on Friday night is a tragedy,” Mendenhall, a Democrat, said in a statement to the Salt Lake Tribune. “I expect this investigation to be handled swiftly and transparently for the sake of everyone involved.”
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As incidents like Cameron’s and Prude’s continue to occur, they’re likely to intensify calls for reimagining law enforcement’s role in mental health crises. Some cities, like Eugene, Oregon and, Dallas, Texas have already done just that and send non-police crisis units to respond to mental health emergencies.
Honberg hopes that the ongoing debate over police brutality also prompts further changes to the role of police in mental health emergencies.
“I’m hoping that this national focus on police reform is going to lead to a re-examination of those issues,” he said. “I really think that what needs to happen is a re-engineering, a re-defining of the role police should be playing in our society.”
While that conversation rages on, 13-year-old Linden Cameron remains in the hospital and his family is struggling to come to terms with what happened.
“He said he can’t feel any feeling in his left hand and he, from my understanding, got shot in both feet,” Linden’s older brother, Wesley Barton, told KLSTV. “So now we’ll never be able to do the things we used to do like longboard and play video games together.”