The weekend shooting death by Los Angeles Police Department officers of an African-American man with autism has sparked an intense debate over how the department should handle persons with mental disabilities.

According to a police account of the incident, gang enforcement officers Allan Corrales and George Diego were heading southbound on Vermont Avenue just after midnight Saturday, when they heard a loud sound as they passed James M. Wood Boulevard. Upon hearing the noise, they proceeded northbound on Vermont.

The officers then observed 27-year-old Steven Eugene Washington — who family members said had the mentality of a 12 year old — “suspiciously looking around and manipulating something in his waistband area,” according to an official statement. After they stopped to question him, police said Washington rapidly charged the officers while appearing to remove something from his waistband. Each officer fired at least one round, and Williams suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head. No weapon was recovered.

“The initial news coverage of the incident shed little light on why lethal force was necessary when officers were not responding to any report of criminal activity,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California executive director Ramona Ripston, “and had no reason to suspect Mr. Washington of a crime just because they heard a loud noise as they were driving past.”

In a meeting held Monday that included civil rights leaders and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, the parties discussed the shooting, the department’s procedures and training as they relate to mentally disabled persons, as well as the pace of the investigation.

“We all agreed that something went wrong, something broke down. There was a failure,” said Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable president Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “Equally important, [they discussed] what could be done to ensure — even though we live in an imperfect world and things happen — that this doesn’t happen again. … We don’t want it to always end with deadly force.”

Autism is a brain developmental disorder that generally appears in the first three years of life and impairs a person’s communication and social interaction skills. More prevalent than childhood cancer and diabetes, roughly 1.5 million individuals in the U.S. alone suffer from the disorder.

“Autistic individuals frequently engage in restricted and repetitive behavior. They are often most comfortable with routines — sometimes very rigidly, becoming easily upset by a new situation, the presence of an unknown person, loud noise, or unanticipated surprises,” according to “Police Interaction with Autistic Persons: The Need for Training,” a July 2009 document produced by Americans for Effective Law Enforcement. “Often their response may be a meltdown, acting out, ritualistic behavior, inappropriate verbal statements, or other actions that may be viewed by some, mistakenly, as an indication of hostility, criminal intent, alcohol or drug intoxication.”

The report also noted that persons with autism have difficulty making eye contact — which, to police officers, can be interpreted as suspicious or defiant. “The result has sometimes, unfortunately, been rapid escalation of the encounter, with ensuing injury or death.”

AELE acknowledges that officers may not be able to immediately recognize autism, but believe that they should have a common understanding of its characteristics, which might help officers respond differently. Common traits include limited or no ability to speak; an obsessive attachment to objects; behaviors, such as hand flapping and body rocking; tantrums or burgeoning behaviors for no reason; and sensitivity or a lack of sensitivity to pain.

They suggest that officers dealing with persons who have autism should model desired behaviors, allow personal space, speak calmly and with simple language, avoid touching, allow delayed responses, turn off all loud noises and bright lights, and allow the agitated person to gain composure.

For Los Angeles Community Action Network member James Porter, “the killing of Steven Washington is a chilling reminder that LAPD shoots first and asks questions later.”

Both officers involved in the shooting — Corrales, who has been with the department for more than six years, and eight-year veteran Diego — are currently on paid leave while agencies including the LAPD Force Investigation Division, the County Coroner, the District Attorney’s office, the Board of Police Commissioners and the Office of the Inspector General investigate the incident.

Following the shooting, the ACLU urged the LAPD to go further than a one-time investigation of the officers’ conduct and take a “broader” look at department policies, procedures and training pertaining to interacting with persons with special needs.

During a Tuesday meeting of the Police Commission, Chief Charlie Beck said that the department prides itself in “best practices as it relates to working with those with special needs. The LAPD is a leader in the public safety community on this type of training.”

LAPD officials said that more than one-quarter of the department’s nearly 10,000 officers have received a one-hour training session in this area, but Porter said that appears to be insufficient. “Complete retraining and reform,” he said, “is the only option.”

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