TAMPA, Fla (WTSP) - Video released this week of a North Miami Police officer's shooting a behavioral therapist while working with someone with autism sent a wave of fear throughout the special needs community.
Families across the country have had what are often difficult discussions with their kids about how to act around police in recent weeks after law enforcement shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, but for people with autism and other special needs those conversations can be even more difficult.
"We, the parents of children with special needs, we're afraid,” said Yadira Calderon, whose daughter has autism and is writing a book on helping society be more educated and accepting of people with autism. She said seeing the video out of North Miami hits too close to home for families like hers.
“It adds to the fear that we already face because our children will not understand 100% the dynamics of what is around them,” said Calderon. “You have an individual who is verbal like the young man in this video, but he will not respond and if the response from law enforcement is going to be by the book we’re going to see more kids being hurt.”
The Temple Terrace Police Department approached Engage Behavioral Heath about addressing these issues months ago to avoid misreading a situation involving people with autism and other special needs.
"They may not be able to respond to a simple instruction like 'get down on the ground', and repeating it multiple times isn't going to change it and it doesn't mean that the individual isn't being compliant with the request and disrespecting the police officer, they just don't understand,” said Phelps.
“I saw the video and you couldn’t help but just cry. It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s heart-wrenching for me to know that all the parents that we serve, all those moms and those dads saw that video and how scared that made them because it’s already fears that they have.”
That’s why Phelps is now offering the same training Temple Terrace officers received to all Tampa Bay area law enforcement free of charge.
“The feedback we’ve gotten has been fantastic, they have reported they’re already using some of the strategies,” said Phelps.
“We want to do it for free. I feel that the little loss that it might incur to me as a company is far less than what can happen in the community if our police officers are not fully aware of what to do when they interact with someone with special needs. I believe that, for the parents that we work with, for the moms, the things that I hear them worry about, this is the best way for us to give back to our clients and to the community.”