TALLAHASSEE — A new law mandating law enforcement training for dealing with autistic individuals has the sheriff and chief of police asking “Why us?”
The Florida legislature passed a new law on May 5 requiring law enforcement to undergo 40 hours of training on recognizing and appropriately responding to individuals with autism. This legislation follows a 2016 incident in South Florida in which a therapist was shot by law enforcement while trying to protect an autistic client.
Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil and Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo discussed the challenges facing law enforcement at a recent Network of Entrepreneurs and Business Advocates (NEBA) meeting. Both were clearly concerned about the ever-increasing responsibilities placed on police officers/deputies when responding to stressful situations.
“Why are we the first to go? Why?” McNeil asked. “We have EMS, they’re trained for medical situations. When there is a fire, they call the fire department and law enforcement goes as back up. We have a mental health situation, why can’t we send a mental health provider with law enforcement as backup?”
“We’re expected to do everything’” he complained. “For mental health situations they call the Leon County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) or they call Tallahassee Police Department (TPD). We go to a house because a guy won’t take his medications. The guy’s not mentally hisself anyway, so we get there and what happens? By just us showing up the situation escalates. When someone slaps one of my deputies up side the head, he’s committed a felony and is going to jail. If a mental health provider had responded, this might have been avoided.”
DeLeo explained,”No, we are not the best intervention for a lot of these social issues but the reality is that in many cases, we’re the only intervention. We’re the only ones that are open 24/7, 365 days a year. We’ve talked with mental health workers about responding with us. ‘You mean come out after 5 o’clock? on the weekend?’ We talk about wanting to make it better, but that’s gonna take a change in our business model, for everybody.”
DeLeo explained what he called “ unrealistic expectations” put on local law enforcement and the burden of that responsibility.
He said, “We talk about crisis intervention and LCSO and TPD have large numbers of our officers trained in crisis intervention. It’s additional schooling above and beyond regular schooling. Every year we send more and more officers for that training. But the truth is the uniform is not the most inviting or calming.”
“When people call us, they are in crisis. They don’t know who else to call. The only way for us to start that referral process is for us to show up. And sometimes, with our presence, we don’t make it better,” he said.
“Everybody mandates special training (for law enforcement) for the things that medical doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists go to school for years for,” DeLeo said. “It takes multiple visits to the doctor’s office and diagnostic testing, so they can diagnose somebody. The expectation is that one of our officers/deputies is gonna show up on a scene and within 15 seconds diagnose someone and treat them appropriately. That’s what you are asking for. And it’s not just autism, its any other medical condition somebody might have, from diabetes to other mental health issues.”
“That’s the burden you are placing on these men and women,” DeLeo said.
“It’s a very difficult situation and we really need to be looking for the alternative organizations that should be intervening prior to, or who we can partner with,” DeLeo said.
DeLeo called the new law “feel good legislation” and said it does not really help the families who already have a very difficult struggle with their children or their adult children.
“We are creating an expectation that because an officer went to a four-hour class, it’s gonna make it all better. We haven’t addressed the issue. We’ve dressed it up and put some wrapping on it, but we need to find who is the best group of people with the right skill set to see it coming and intervene appropriately with law enforcement in a supporting role. That’s what we should be doing,” he concluded.