Denver Newsroom, Sep 27, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The director of a Catholic organization focused on the needs of people with disabilities said Wednesday that the police shooting of a Utah boy with autism points to the importance of advocacy, understanding, and compassion for people with autism and other disabilities.
“This situation shines a light on two diagnoses unfortunately on the rise in our world: autism and mental illness,” Charleen Katra, director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, told CNA this week.
“More importantly, we see how the lives of persons currently living with either or both diagnoses are in dire need of understanding and advocacy,” Katra said.
“This situation makes us all weep, along with God. All human beings, in all circumstances, deserve to be treated with dignity.”
Linden Cameron, a 13-year-old Salt Lake City boy, was seriously injured and hospitalized after he was shot by a police officer Sept. 4.
Cameron has Asperger syndrome, also called autism spectrum disorder, and had a mental health crisis on Friday, Sept. 4, according to his mother, Golda Barton. Cameron also has mental health problems; in police bodycam footage his mother said he was under the care of a psychiatrist for multiple mental health diagnoses, and that he has sensory processing disorder.
Barton called 911 on Sept. 4, and requested a crisis intervention officer. She said her son needed to be hospitalized for mental health treatment.
When police officers, rather than a crisis team, arrived, Barton told them that her son was scared of police, had difficult processing commands, was likely to run, and that he needed to be hospitalized. She also told police that Cameron might have a BB gun or a pellet gun. Asked by police if it was a real gun, Barton said she did not believe it was a real gun.
Police expressed uncertainty about how best to approach Cameron, according to bodycam footage, before they approached his house, and, after he began to run, began pursuing him.
After a foot chase through an alley, Cameron slowed to a walk on a sidewalk. Police instructed him to get on the ground as they approached him, and he did not do so.
A police officer then fired 11 shots, and Cameron fell to the ground. He told police “I don’t feel good,” and “Tell my mom I love her,” before the bodycam footage ended.
Cameron suffered injuries to his intestines, bladder, colon, shoulder, and ankles, his mother has said. The shooting is now under investigation in Utah.
“The actions documented in this case are devastating on many levels. The call from a desperate mother for assistance, who rightly requested a crisis intervention team to deescalate a challenging situation, was met with behaviors that did the exact opposite,” Katra told CNA.
“Persons with autism and mental illness often live daily with high levels of anxiety. What Linden needed was patience and compassion. The ability of a person already anxious or experiencing a mental health episode to process actions and words of others will be delayed even more than usual,” she added.
A person with autism spectrum disorders is likely to have difficulties during encounters with police, experts say, because some behaviors typical in persons with autism, such as avoiding eye contact or moving hands rapidly, can be interpreted as a threat if police lack specific training or experience related to autism. Those with mental health problems also have disproportionately challenging interactions with police, as their actions can be perceived as belligerent or threatening.
Barton pointed out in an interview early this month that when police approached her son, he was walking, within reach of them, and smaller than them.
“He’s a small child. Why didn’t you just tackle him?” Barton asked police during an interview with KUTV News. “He’s a baby. He has mental issues.”
“Linden Cameron is a creation of the Creator; made in God’s image. We must continue to educate and advocate for individuals with greater needs with haste,” Katra added.
Police officers have not commented on the shooting, because it is now under investigation.
In a Sept. 9 statement, the Salt Lake City diocese told CNA: “We offer our prayers for Linden Cameron and his family. Whatever the results of the ongoing investigations, we are heartbroken to see a child caught in our culture of gun violence.”
In its statement, the Salt Lake City diocese said it “supports and encourages continued discussions with law enforcement about the use of force and legislative action to ensure that the dignity and sanctity of all life is protected throughout our criminal justice system.”
The National Catholic Partnership on Disability says it is the “voice of the U.S. Catholic Bishops” on disabilities, and was founded to implement the U.S. bishops’ conference’s 1978 pastoral statement on the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the Catholic Church. The organization is affiliated with the U.S. bishops’ conference.