September 22, 2016
Dustin Chandler was the second Pelham police officer to arrive on the scene. He worked vice on the overnight shift, so he’d seen a lot, but this was, well, different…
A man had stopped his car on 31 North near Highway 119, stopped in the middle of an intersection, gotten out of his car and stood there—urinating, on himself.
A policeman’s first instinct, naturally, would be to suspect DUI. The man had to be under the influence of something; why, otherwise, would he stand in the middle of the street in the middle of the night wetting himself?
But Chandler suspected otherwise. So, after conveying to his fellow officer that something else might be afoot, he began talking to the man. Soon, he recognized him from the community, recognized him as someone with a developmental disability, whose symptoms may mimic those of a person who is either drunk or on drugs.
In fact, it was later learned, the man suffered from autism—or more correctly, Spectrum Disorder, the neurodevelopmental affliction that variously impairs the sufferer’s ability to effectively communicate or interact with others. Some sufferers are highly functional (and are able to drive and live independently); others are not.
Chandler recognized the symptoms not because he was trained to do so, but because, as many Alabamians know, his young daughter suffers from CDLK5, a rare genetic disorder with no known cure; she later became the namesake for Alabama’s Carly’s Law. Passed in 2014, it creates an affirmative defense for patients suffering from debilitating epileptic conditions—and their caregivers—for using marijuana extracts for treatment.
Chandler’s ability to see that there may have been another explanation for such odd behavior—behavior that would have had us undergoing sobriety tests, trying to touch our nose and stuff—prevented the man from becoming yet another person suffering from a disorder to be engulfed in our criminal justice system, which, as recent coverage AL.com revealed, is overburdened and ill-equipped to handle prisoners suffering with mental health issues or other disorders.
“I’m not sure what would have happened had I not been there,” says Chandler.
In January 2015 Chandler resigned from the department following the release of an audio tape revealing some fellow officers mocking special needs children.
Near the end of the year, he launched the Interaction Advisory Group, to help train police officers on how to better engage with people with autism and other developmental disabilities during on-duty interactions or encounters.
His primary message: “De-escalation, especially when it comes to autism, has to be thought of first,” he says
“We want all police officers, in the back of their minds, to be able to pick up on certain clues and say, ‘Let’s look at de-escalation as the first technique rather than putting hands on somebody,'” he adds. “If you put hands on someone with autism they may not understand the circumstance and think you’re being aggressive. It may cause anxiety and stress that can make them close down and not talk.”
IAG—a partnership between Chandler, the Kirchner Group and the UAB School of Health Professions—has conducted training sessions, funded by the Autism Society of Alabama, with departments across the state. Chandler has also had training requests from agencies as far away as Southern California.
This week, Chandler is in Washington, D.C. speaking with national leaders and their staffs about the importance of autism training.
Next month, Chandler will attend a law enforcement summit in Montgomery, hosted by state attorney general Luther Strange, and speak about autism training before an audience of about 500 officers.
The numerous invitations “show the importance and the need,” Chandler says. “Some officers have said, ‘We had no clue,’ and that they were glad they took the class.”
When he started IAG, Chandler had no idea that less than a year later, his services would be in such high demand. He also didn’t know the interaction between police offers and some Americans—read: black men, in particular—would become perhaps the most volatile topic of conversation, media coverage and social-media chatter in the nation.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding on both sides,” he told me this week. “I’ve worn the badge and know what it is like to be in situations. People don’t understand what it is like wearing a badge. It’s not the same as any other job, and it’s a hard one to do.”
I first met Chandler in mid-July during an appearance on the Matt Murphy Show to discuss my column on the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, which had been followed the next day by a column on Sterling and Philando Castille, who was killed by a policeman in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, while sitting in his car with his girlfriend and her young son.
“Some officers have said, ‘We had no clue,’ and that they were glad they took the class.”
The show occurred a few days later, on the morning after the killing of five Dallas police officers by a lone gunman.
It had been a week that touched us all—like pouring iodine into a long-open wound that still has nowhere near healed.
The show was tense, as expected, but the ex-cop to my right was reasonable and insightful, not a knee-jerk defender of all things blue. Afterwards we chatted for a bit and I learned of his mission to train officers on how to better handle encounters with people with disabling disorders, such as autism.
“I go back to my own police training,” he said. “Police are trained to keep themselves safe, which I understand. But certain situations don’t always call for use of deadly force, which it’s sometimes hard to tell in a split second.
“Being a cop for long as I was we received no special training on how to manage a situation involving someone with a special-needs disability,” he said. “I can tell you we faced these situations and while most of the time our instincts worked well, some situations didn’t turn out well.”
Since then, Chandler’s been my “go-to cop”, especially when there is a police killing, the latest of which occurred this week in Tulsa and Charlotte. Not sharing the depths of those conversations here, just that they’ve all been engaging and enlightening, for both of us. (The kind of dialogue I wish occurred more often during these tense and turbulent times.)
For various reasons, someone with a developmental disability is seven times more likely to have an encounter with the police, according to an FBI study. And there’ve been numerous incidents in recent months between police around the nation and someone with a developmental disability.
One of the most visible happened on July 18 in North Miami, Florida, when Charles Kinsey, a behavioral specialist (who is African-American) was shot by a policeman as he lay on the ground with his hands up next to his patient, who had walked out of the MacTown Panther Group Homes a few block away. The officer shot Kinsey, and later stated, through a police union official, that he did so accidently; he meant to shoot the patient because he thought he was going to harm Kinsey with the object in his hand.
It was a toy truck.
Chandler watched the widely circulated video of the incident: “I can’t say what the officer saw was a gun or not but the caregiver was trying to say the guy had autism. We just have to start thinking about a better way to handle. There were certain cues, I saw from watching just a few seconds of video. If we see certain behavior in an individual, we need to not be so quick to make certain decisions.
“Deadly force is not always the first option but I’ve been there. If officers can pick up on clues, having that knowledge, we can start looking at de-escalation as a safer option for all.”
Chandler always reiterates that he’s not anti-cop, and he’s not, by any stretch. With IAG he has found audiences that are open and willing to learn.
“We do not train that police officers should not arrest a person with autism,” he says. “But if they have to go to jail there are certain things officers must know to make sure the subject is safe and treated fairly to improve their due process: do they truly understand the Miranda warning; are you checking off everything that should be checked off?
“We don’t ever say don’t arrest but if you do, make sure the subject is kept safe and know that certain things make a difference in your interaction.”
In October, IAG hopes to rollout an on-line version of its training program that will allow departments to use it without Chandler being present. When he is engaged, however, Chandler is beginning to incorporate autism sufferers and caregivers into his training.
I asked him, recently, if he believes his training could be expanded, to help officers to consider de-escalation in all high-stress, split-second encounters, beyond simply those with persons with a developmental disability.
He paused, thoughtfully.
“This training is, at least, a bare minimum because we talk about de-escalation,” he said. “How it translates into every-day police work is hard to tell. Can you have that de-escalation thought if you stack up these clues, along with others? Maybe. Certain situations don’t always call for use of deadly force. Which do and which don’t are hard to tell in a split second.”
But perhaps easier, if it is discussed and trained and ingrained sooner, rather than too late.