Training promotes positive engagement between cops, autistic people
Law enforcement officers may sometimes use unnecessary physical force or escalate problem behavior when attempting to gain the compliance of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
"It doesn't have to be this way," said University of Houston-Clear Lake alumna Karlie Hinkle, who has been working to educate UH-Clear Lake University Police as well as the Houston Police Department by creating and implementing a training protocol that coaches officers on how to adapt their approach for people with autism.
In July, her training protocol was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in an article entitled, "Preparing Law Enforcement Officers to Engage Successfully with Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Evaluation of a Performance-Based Approach."
"We did a pilot study involving an officer at UH-Clear Lake, a middle school resource officer and a chief of security from a community college, and found out our methods were effective," Hinkle said. "When we saw it was successful, we moved the training to the Houston Police Department."
Hinkle said they had done a group training with 12 Houston police officers at a time, with six completing a role-play and lectures, and a second group of six officers who only received the training via a lecture format.
"We found that an autism-specific training should be supplemented with role-play to practice the steps we created from a checklist for the officers," she said. "We worked closely with HPD when developing those steps, some of which they were already teaching in de-escalation training for their work with mentally ill people. The main component of the training is to teach officers how to build trust and rapport to gain compliance from a person, and to try different methods to gain compliance before using physical means."
Travis Cogbill, a crisis intervention trainer with HPD, said Hinkle's autism training elevated their existing training to another level. "We have 40-hour, weeklong classes we offer to become certified as a CIT offers, and the advanced courses touch on hot topics in our community," he said. "At first, her training was presented to officers in advanced CIT, but it eventually was incorporated into the regular 40-hour training."
Cogbill also said that police trainees who have no experience at all and have not yet graduated are taking the course, which has been added to up to three CIT classes taught once or twice a month, with up to 75 trainees per class.
"We train about 100-120 officers a month, and for many of them, it's the first scenario they were ever exposed to with people with autism, so it's a different perspective," he said. "Even though Karlie isn't in Houston anymore, we are still teaching her material. Officers who have been in this situation have told me they might have gone hands-on unnecessarily, but they recognized what was going on in time."
Officers do not have a way to track whether or not they've had an encounter with a person on the autism spectrum.
"We track our CIT calls, which generally involve some sort of mental health issue, including autism, but we can't say specifically what issue the officer is responding to," Cogbill said. "We do have 45,000 mental health-related calls per year. Officers are not qualified to diagnose mental illness; they just need to realize there's a disorder going on, and they can get that person the help they need."
Hinkle said that in 2017, when she was conducting her research, she found that by age 21, nearly 20% of individuals with autism had been questioned or stopped by law enforcement, and 5% of those instances had ended with the person being detained.
"This is why the training is necessary," she said.
Hinkle, who received her Master of Arts in Behavior Analysis from UHCL in 2020, is now a graduate assistant working toward her doctorate in industrial/organizational behavior management at Western Michigan University.
"Officers are learning to interact with people who are nonverbal, just to let them know they're here to help, and to ease their anxiety," Cogbill said. "We have specialized units in HPD specifically for mental health-related calls. This is why her training is so valuable. It supports what we're already teaching in de-escalation and active listening."
For more information about UHCL's Behavior Analysis program, go online.