The mother of 13-year-old Linden Cameron needed help with her son while he experienced a mental health episode. So she called Salt Lake City police.
But Cameron, who has autism, didn’t respond to officers' shouts while they followed him running in the neighborhood. Police officers fired nearly a dozen shots at the boy, who was hospitalized as a result of the shooting. Family members said it was unlikely he’d walk normally again.
To try to avoid these circumstances, Salt Lake City announced a partnership Thursday with KultureCity, an organization that provides training to organizations around the country on how to best handle interactions with those with sensory needs, like Cameron.
Officers, firefighters, and 911 dispatchers will undergo one-hour training sessions at Vivint Smart Home Arena from occupational and behavior therapists in November, followed by testing on the concepts learned. New first responders will receive the training moving forward, and all will be retested annually to certify that they’ve passed the training.
Would that have changed what happened to Cameron?
“It’s impossible to speculate on a case that’s already happened, particularly when there’s an investigation,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said. “But absolutely, our hope is that this training will have an impact on the way future similar interactions happen with the Salt Lake City Police Department, Fire Department and 911.”
And there are thousands of interactions to possibly improve upon. According to estimates provided by Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, officers were responded to 23,000 service calls last year featuring those with sensory needs or hidden disabilities — a list that also includes those with post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, dementia, Parkinson’s, or stroke.
Brown says KultureCity’s training can help officers respond more effectively in those situations. The state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training process already includes two hours about those with sensory needs and hidden disabilities, Brown said, but said his department welcomes the additional learning. He also pointed to potential benefits of having firefighters and dispatchers trained as well.
Salt Lake City police will become the first department in the nation to be Certified Sensory Inclusive, KultureCity’s designation for those who have gone through its training protocol. Three Utah facilities are currently Certified Sensory Inclusive, according to KultureCity’s website: the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum arena on the campus of Utah State, the Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum, and the St. George Children’s Museum.
The effort came about in part due to the urging of Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles, who sits on the board of KultureCity.
“I probably annoyed them a little bit too much about it,” Ingles said, referencing his calls and texts to the mayor and police chief. “But it was that I’m so passionate about and something that I just felt was necessary.”
That’s because the issue is personal to Ingles, who has a 4-year-old autistic son, Jacob.
When the Cameron shooting occurred, “We were we were sitting at home, and it hit really hard," Ingles said. "The love and support that we have for this city and the fact that we want to stay here as long as possible — that could be easily a situation that Jacob could be in.”
The city also asked residents who care for someone with sensory needs to provide information to first responders with the city’s Autism Safety Registry. Possible information includes the person’s diagnosis, the preferred mode of communication, and any medications to be aware of. It also might include someone’s behaviors shown during a meltdown or crisis situation, or techniques best used to calm the individual.
That information would then pop up on officers' screens when responding to a service call at that address. So far, though, the registry has been very underused — only five Salt Lake City homes have registered with the database, Mendenhall said.
“When our officers take an oath to protect everyone and serve the people of our city, it really needs to mean everyone — and I know that they mean it, too,” Mendenhall said. “Part of being able to serve everyone is being able to recognize and adapt to the unique needs of each individual.”