Robert Gehrke: Here’s one instance where SLC police training on how to respond to people with autism paid off

KultureCity is part of a growing understanding of how police can safely engage

(Salt Lake City Police Department via YouTube) Salt Lake City police engage a person with autism in Mach 2021. New police training teaches law enforcement to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

It was just after midnight, and a man was outside the Salt Lake City police headquarters demanding that officers kill him.

“I’m gonna see God tonight, bro. Let me have one last cigarette and listen to my song,” he shouted at officers.

“Alright. You know me, we’re just trying to get you some help,” the officer shouts back.

Over the next 25 minutes, officers cordoned off the block, but were conscious to turn off the flashing lights on the cruiser that might be triggering. They shined flashlights on his hands instead of in his eyes, and one officer calmly and gradually tried to de-escalate.

“Take your guns out!” he demands over and over.

“We don’t want to do that,” the officer shouts back. “Tell me what you’re feeling.”

“You with the shotgun … set me free bro. Send me to f---ing God,” he said later. “Just shoot me, bro.”

At the end of the tense back-and-forth, an officer was able to get close enough to use a Taser, stunning him long enough they could handcuff him and transport him to the hospital for help.

Many of the tactics the officers employed that night in March were part of the KultureCity curriculum that is now standard training for Salt Lake officers. Several who responded that night had gone through the training just days earlier.

“This is how we’d love for all of them to go. Some of this involves our new training, and we continue to involve that training,” said Detective Mike Ruff, a spokesman for the department. “This is one of those where we’re learning as a department. We have a lot of new officers and they can learn from this and see, hey, this is an outcome we want.”

While the incident may not look all that remarkable, it’s easy to see how it could have played out much differently.

According to data compiled by The Tribune, at least 40% of police shootings in 2020 involved someone suffering from a mental health crisis.

Last September, the mother of 13-year-old Linden Cameron, who has autism, called police for help get her son to a medical facility for help. The boy bolted and officers chased him down and shot him repeatedly. Cameron survived and his family is suing the city.

That incident prompted Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles and his wife Renae — who have a son with autism — to convince Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to partner with KultureCity on sensory inclusive training for police and firefighters, the first force in the country to do the training. The Ingleses covered part of the cost of the training.

Mendenhall credits the lessons learned with helping to defuse the situation outside police headquarters.

“It was resolved safely and the officers, when I thanked them for the way they conducted themselves ... said, This was because of our KultureCity training that we knew — and it wasn’t just one of us, all the officers there that night knew — what we needed to do to mitigate the potential triggering this individual and having it become a tragic incident,” the mayor told The Tribune recently.

To be sure, the shooting of Cameron was very different than what unfolded in front of the police headquarters in March, where more officers were attempting to deal with an individual they knew and had encountered before.

But in the scores of situations where police officers are called on to intervene with people with behavioral issues or who are in crisis, the training can make a difference. It can defuse situations, result in better outcomes and help keep both police and residents safe.

And in the coming months and years, more officers will be getting this kind of training. Rep. Steve Eliason and Sen. Daniel Thatcher partnered on legislation last session that requires officers’ annual training to include information on how to respond to individuals with mental illness, autism or neurological or developmental disorders.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, adds mental health awareness and de-escalation training. Both bills took effect last week.

It would be naive to think that any amount of training can avoid every bad outcome. But as long as we expect police officers to be called upon to serve as quasi-front-line social workers for people in crisis, giving them the tools to respond appropriately is critical, and it’s encouraging to see the effort paying dividends so quickly.

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