Houston Police learn how to better interact with autistic citizens

Police often encounter cases that appear to be suspicious activity, when really they're dealing with an autistic citizen.

"The hand flapping, the rocking, the person rocking, that sort of thing--that may be a suspicious behavior," said officer Alfred Rivera with the Houston Police Mental Health Division. 

Each year Houston Police officers train on how to handle cases involving mental health issues, and this year they've been honing in on autism specifically.

Part of the training involves distinguishing between people on the autism spectrum and potential criminals or those going through a drug withdrawal.

"They may likely disrobe," said Rivera who is instructing the autism course. "But then what's the other thing that people disrobe? They look like someone going through excited delirium, right? They get naked. They get hot going through some kind of drug withdrawal, so we have a tendency to have a hard time figuring out what the situation may be."

The CDC reports one in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder--a developmental disability that causes significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. 

Rivera says his department's autism training paid off earlier this year when two Houston Police officers were dispatched to a family disturbance.

"They saw a man--a young man--running wildly at them, aggressively, non-verbal," said Rivera. "They drew their weapons. They did not present their weapons at the young man, but at the very last second the officer goes, 'Woah woah woah woah. He's autistic.' And they holstered their weapons, and the young man ran up to them and hugged them."

Rivera says the training helped them avoid a situation like the one in Chicago in 2017 when an officer shot and wounded Ricardo Hayes, an autistic teen who wandered away from his home, or the one in Miami in 2017 when an officer shot Charles Kinsey, an unarmed caretaker of a man with autism, or Louisiana in 2015 when an officer shot and killed Jeremy Mardis, an autistic six-year-old boy. 

"We do have less use of force incidents when we have this training," said Rivera.

Every year the Houston Police Department puts its officers through 40 hours of training, including eight hours of mental health training and crisis prevention training.

Police say the autism training program they're following was provided to them by Karlie Hinkle who is working towards her masters degree in behavior analysis at the University of Houston - Clear Lake.