Robert Gehrke: We need a fresh look at how police respond to people with special needs

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It was sickening to watch — the crackling of rapid gunfire and then 13-year-old Linden Cameron collapsing to the ground.

“I don’t feel good,” the young man, who has autism, moaned. “Tell my mom I love her.”

Read that again… “Tell my mom I love her.”

In that moment, Cameron had to believe he was going to die. Bullets ripped through his shoulder, intestines, bladder and both ankles, according to the family’s fundraising page. Frankly, he is lucky to be alive.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the shooting, which remains under investigation, left her “profoundly heartbroken” and frustrated.

“This shooting is another tragedy,” she said. “It’s a tragedy for this young boy, for his mother and for families and individuals with acute mental health needs. I think that our community looks at this situation and sees themselves or their loved ones reflected in it.”

Cameron’s mother, Golda Barton, called police to try to help get her son, who was having an episode, to the hospital. She warned officers that seeing police is a “trigger” for her son and that he might have a toy gun or a pellet gun, but she didn’t think he had a real weapon.

When they reached the door, he bolted out the back and jumped a fence. Officers chased him through an alley and onto the sidewalk, ordering him to stop running. When Cameron stopped and turned toward them, one officer opened fire.

We have to acknowledge that police officers are faced with difficult, life-or-death decisions. It’s also hard to see how this young man posed an “imminent threat” to the community that would legally justify shooting the teen.

And given that his mother warned them that the sight of police was a “trigger,” and he posed no immediate threat to himself or anyone else, it’s difficult to comprehend why they would even be best-situated to respond to a call like this.

The county routinely deploys Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, rapid-response mental health professionals specifically trained to provide mental health interventions, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, anywhere in the county.

The city also has officers with specialized “crisis intervention training,” commonly referred to as CIT, to address mental health issues that might pose specific risks.

The body camera video released by the city clearly shows the officers before the shooting were befuddled with how to respond, but none of the videos shows them even contemplating contacting the mobile outreach team or a CIT officer.

And that points to a failure of training.

Nothing can heal Cameron’s wounds, which he’ll live with for the rest of his life. But it is important that steps be taken to keep a situation like this from happening again.

Statistics show people with autism are seven times as likely to have encounters with police officers and because they may not respond the way officers expect — and in some instances may be unable to respond the way police would want — it’s critical that officers are trained to recognize the signs and understand the right way to react.

“These circumstances where a family might need emergency help happen far too often in the autism community, and we don’t talk about it until these tragedies happen,” Calleen Kenney, president of the Utah Autism Council, told me. “This is horrible and this is emotional and especially right now we have to make immediate changes. And we think training will be the key.”

Kenney said her organization and its member partners are working with legislators to require consistent, mandatory training in departments across the state, along with regularly updated testing and certification.

Rep. Steve Elaison, R-Sandy, told me Tuesday he is working on legislation that would require CIT training for every officer in the state.

Right now, the quality of mental health and de-escalation training varies dramatically, said Sherri Wittwer, president of CIT Utah, from departments that implement best practices and have trained CIT officers, to those who do their own internal training, to those who do nothing at all.

A KSL survey of the departments in the five largest counties earlier this year found that just over half had received such training.

“When someone is in a mental health crisis, they require a different approach to responding and having the right response is in the best interest of that person and of their family,” Wittwer said.

And obviously the training doesn’t just help in responding to citizens with autism, it runs the gamut of mental illness and people in crisis. A Washington Post database of police shootings since 2015 found that 19 of the 68 Utahns killed by police — 27% — involved someone with a history of mental illness.

Finally, we ought to restore funding for our social safety net that has been shredded by decades of neglect, leaving police having to catch anyone who falls through the gaps. It places untenable, unfair demands on officers that they are not trained to meet.

And when they fail, the consequences, as in Linden Cameron’s case, can indeed be tragic.