The term “streetcorner psychiatrist” is from Teplin and Pruett (1992) who created the term to describe how police are the first to interact with the mentally ill since after deinstitutionalization, a dramatic shift in the mental health care system impacting the mentally ill. This study was published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry with data comprising of over 2,000 civilians. The mentally ill observed almost double the rate of being arrested compared to a non-ill person (Teplin & Pruett, 1992). Thus, police officers are seen as the first in contact with those with autism because of the shift in the mental health care system, and the myth was born that police officers are trained on autism and how to protect individuals with autism in the community.
There are successful programs in the United States supporting police officers in their exchanges with individuals with autism. The Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is a program from Memphis, Tennessee that trains officers to respond to calls involving someone with a mental illness (Lurigio, Smith, & Harris, 2008). This article was published in The Police Journal by professors associated with the Department of Criminal Justice at a couple of universities. More than 70 police departments around the United States have replicated CIT because of how successful it was (Teller, Munetz, Gil, & Ritter, 2006). This research supports the idea law enforcement officials can protect individuals with autism in the community. The Teller et al. (2006) study looked at data over six years to gather more information, and research was done with the help of a grant from the Ohio Department of Mental Health as well as the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services.
Additionally, there’s evidence showing a reduction in the number of injuries both to civilians and officers due to the implementation of the CIT model (Lurigio et al., 2008). Even with the support of the various scientific studies, there are even more studies published that can rapidly disprove the myth that police officials are trained on autism and can safely protect those individuals with autism.
Evidence Against Myth
Police officers lack the proper autism-specific training to best serve the autism community. A couple of studies suggest police officers are unable to identify autism. A comprehensive study conducted by Salerno and Schuller (2019) sought to better understand people with autism and their experiences with the police, as well as their attitudes towards these interactions. This study was published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry and had a participant pool of 35 individuals ranging in age from 18-65, thus representing a wide scope of experiences. Participants felt dissatisfied with their interactions involving the police (Salerno & Schuller, 2019). The survey also found that when participants were asked if the officer could correctly identify on their own if they were interacting with a person with autism, they answered no. This further exemplifies the need to provide proper training to reduce the number of unfavorable encounters, such as providing training for police on disability recognition. Police officers do not receive enough training if they are unable to identify individuals with autism.
Not only are police officers unable to identify autism, but they also are unable to recognize the difference between disabilities. Modell & Mak (2008) surveyed 124 police officers from varying areas, such as urban and rural. More than half of the participants were not able to tell the difference between physical disabilities and cognitive disabilities or thought there to be no difference, and 80% could not accurately distinguish characteristics of people diagnosed with autism (Modell & Mak, 2008). This study was included in a journal published by the American Association on Intellectual and Development Disabilities.
Current training provided to police officers also does not change their current attitude. Bailey, Barr, and Bunting (2001) conducted a study to assess the change in the attitude of police officers towards people with intellectual disabilities before and after an awareness training event took place. This study was published by the International Journal of Intellectual Disability Research and had over 60 participants. Results support the claim police officers’ attitudes can change in a positive direction after participation in a training event. Participants filled out the Attitudes towards Mental Retardation and Eugenics (AMRE) questionnaire, and the mean score for those in the awareness group went up 10 points and was statistically significant. Bailey et al. (2001) found a significant association of the training event and a positive attitude towards those with intellectual disabilities. This supports the implementation of training for police officers to learn how those with a disability will respond and act differently in a situation.
Police officers are not aware of the specific characteristics of autism. Chown (2009) created a questionnaire based on a model from the US. When comparing mean scores, the mean UK score was lower than that of the US, suggesting the US may be ahead in their autism awareness training. Nonetheless, these countries can still do more to improve police officers’ knowledge of autism. In a survey of 124 police officers, 100% of respondents to this survey confirmed they had not received autism education from their employer, and all participants worked in the police service (Chown, 2009). The International Journal of Police Science & Management published this study conducted by a former member of the Metropolitan Police Service, as the Director of Risk Management. The author believes it would be invaluable for police officers to be able to identify if a person has autism to avoid the mistake of misinterpreting their behavior. Studies by Chown (2009) and Bailey et al. (2001) both support the notion of having a holistic approach when it comes to teaching officers about disabilities. It is important it is to offer officers the best training possible so they can confidently handle all types of interactions.
Giving police officers the tools to recognize someone with a mental or developmental disability allows them to adapt their behavior. Laan, Ingram, and Glidden (2013) published a study with interviewees representing seven different states’ training organizations for law enforcement. Six out of seven states confirmed their training had autism awareness, but further review of training materials revealed limited information deemed inadequate. The police officers are given general training, which is helpful, but there are many autism-specific characteristics officers should be aware of, so they know how to approach an interaction involving someone with autism. This study was published in the Journal of Global Intelligence & Policy. Their analysis used interviews to gather information, as well as looking at the training material provided to the police officers to compare across the seven states. Interestingly, it was acknowledged by the representatives of each state that their training materials for law enforcement still uses the phrase “mental disability.” It is imperative police officers can distinguish autism from other disabilities. Modell and Mak (2008) research support police know disabilities but fail to classify different types of disability. There are both intellectual and developmental disabilities for police officers to be aware of.
There are not strict enough requirements for providing police officers with training. Gardner, Campbell, and Westdal (2019) used descriptive analysis to study police officers’ awareness of autism. The study was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. While 72% of participants said they had not received formal training for autism, over 48% of responses confirm they experienced one or more calls involving an individual who has autism (Gardner et al., 2019). This data once again shows the lack of autism-specific training provided to police officers. Furthermore, there are no set rules on how much training is to be delivered for the few states like New Jersey and Florida that have mandated training on autism awareness.
A study was done to looks at the amount and satisfactoriness of training among first responders in the State of New Jersey, where emergency first responders must receive autism awareness training as of 2008. This research article was published in Police Practice and Research, and the contributors are associated with the Department of Criminal Justice at Kean University. Kelly and Hassett-Walker (2016) found results from the survey show a large percentage of responders had not yet completed the required training. This is especially alarming in New Jersey, as the reason this state law requires emergency personnel to receive this type of training is due to the state average of the prevalence of autism diagnoses in children being higher than the national average (Kelly & Hassett-Walker, 2016). New Jersey is an example where there are laws requiring training, but none seem to be in place to check the training takes place.
The current format of the training is not enough to equip police officers with the best tools to best protect individuals with autism. Krameddine, DeMarco, Hassel, and Silverstone (2013) found that training that involves role-play is considered to be one of the most effective types of training for officers as it is more experiential-based based on their survey results. They authored an original research article published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, with not only the authors of study editing their work, but additionally edited with the help of an editor and multiple reviewers. The participant pool was made up of 170 police officers who finished the baseline and the follow-up assessments after training using scripted role-play. Although attitudes towards people diagnosed with a mental illness remained the same at the follow-up, there were drastic improvements in “the recognition of mental health issues as a reason for a call (40%), improved efficiency in dealing with mental health issues, and a decrease in weapon or physical interactions with mentally ill individuals” (Krameddine et al., 2013, p. 1). Involving officers to experience more in-vivo training will better prepare them for future interactions with individuals with autism.
Evidence supports police officers are unable to identify autism. When the law enforcement officials cannot recognize if they are interacting with an individual with autism, they are unable to modify their behavior to best protect the individual. Studies suggest more can always be done to improve training for police officers about autism awareness. It is important to be able to teach officers to distinguish the differences between someone with autism and someone with an intellectual disability to make the interaction as safe as possible. Furthermore, current training is insufficient – such as in New Jersey – and there are far superior methods of training.
The myth that police officers are trained on autism and how to protect individuals with autism in the community should be phrased differently. Instead, it should be said that police officers are aware of people with disabilities but require more in-depth training to improve recognition of specific characteristics of autism.