Boy shooting raises questions about police crisis training

FILE – In this file photo from Wednesday, April 8, 2020, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall wears a face mask as she attends the daily COVID-19 press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City . A police department on Tuesday, September 8, 2020, promised to cooperate with several investigations into the shooting of a 13-year-old boy with autism by officers in the Salt Lake City area. Mendenhall said in a statement Sunday (September 6) that the shooting was a tragedy and called for a swift and transparent investigation. (Francisco Kjolseth / The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A police shootout that injured a 13-year-old boy with autism in Salt Lake City reveals flaws in the way officers respond to a mental health crisis, an advocacy group said Wednesday, part of the police facing renewed control during nationwide protests against law enforcement brutality.

Similar questions arise in Rochester, New York, following the death of a black man whose brother called police about his unusual behavior shortly after a mental health assessment. It comes as protesters urged cities to “fund the police” and transfer money to social services instead.

In Utah, the boy survived with serious injuries. He appears to be white according to a photo posted online by his mother Golda Barton, although police have not provided his race. Barton says she called 911 Friday night because it was down and needed help from a crisis intervention officer.

The officers from Salt Lake City who came were not crisis response specialists but had received mental health training, and they ended up shooting the boy as he was running away because ‘they believed he had made threats involving a weapon, authorities said. There was no indication that he had a weapon.

An officer trained in crisis response would have handled the situation differently, focusing on de-escalation and avoiding yelling or using sirens, which can be disorienting, said Sherri Wittwer, chairman of the board of directors of CIT Utah, a nonprofit organization that provides crisis intervention training for law enforcement.

“Someone who is in a mental health crisis… can have different behaviors,” Wittwer said. “And that’s why we need officers who understand the different ways that can appear.”

Some police departments even take specific training in communicating with people with autism, a developmental disorder that can involve varying degrees of linguistic and social impairment.

The Salt Lake Police Department has about three officers specializing in crisis intervention, but they don’t answer all calls involving mental health issues, said Detective Michael Ruff, a spokesperson for the department. He supported the ministry’s model of giving each new recruit 40 hours of crisis intervention training at their police academy.

“We are very comfortable with the program that we used and with the people who teach it,” he said. “There is more than one way to be trained at CIT. ”

Ruff declined to say what tactics the police used to defuse the situation before shooting the boy. The department said it would cooperate with several investigations.

But for Wittwer, the case is an example of why the state needs a unified and cohesive program. In 2016, the Salt Lake City Police withdrew from training provided by their group.

“When people call an officer they are in their most vulnerable state and they have to trust those who will come to their door,” she said.

The names of the officers, body camera video and recordings of 911 calls were not disclosed.

The boy’s mother, meanwhile, told Salt Lake City KUTV that she informed police her son was autistic, was unarmed, and didn’t know how to regulate his behavior. .

Barton hoped they would help defuse the situation and calm him down. Instead, two policemen who entered her home told her son to “lie on the floor” and shot him.

“He’s a little kid,” Barton told the TV station. “Why didn’t you just tackle him?” It’s a baby. He has mental problems. “

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Eppolito is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.


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