When an 18-year-old Utah high school senior attended voluntary study hall after school last month, then headed home for dinner with his family, he ended up spending the night in the Salt Lake County Jail while his parents had no idea where he was.
He was arrested and charged with assault on a police officer, a class A misdemeanor, because the Sandy, Utah, cop who pulled him over for speeding mistook his agitation — due to his autism — for criminally aggressive behavior.
The incident highlights a growing problem as society assimilates people with autism and other mental disabilities, enhancing the chances they will have confrontations with police.
The most egregious example of law enforcement not recognizing behavior related to mental illness was the case of Brian Cardall, who was bipolar and suffering a psychotic episode when a police officer shocked him twice with a Taser in 2009. Cardall died.
But officers frequently face people with special needs and must weigh all the possibilities before reacting, says Salt Lake City police Chief Chris Burbank.
"We want officers to recognize [certain behaviors] and then take a moment to evaluate," Burbank said. "The officer needs to ask, ' How did this person get to the point that he or she is so agitated?' "
Burbank appears on a locally produced educational video to raise awareness about special-needs individuals. It includes stories from parents of young adults with autism and other disorders along with explanations from Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who overcame myriad obstacles to earn her doctorate degree.
Titled "Invisible Disabilities: The Problems of Perception," the production received a grant from Salt Lake City, and Burbank plans to use it and other aids to train his 700 employees in how to recognize invisible disabilities and avoid danger.
The video's basic message when encountering an individual acting oddly: stop, breathe, reflect and choose.
As for the high school student, the probable-cause statement sent to the Salt Lake County district attorney's office says he was driving 60 mph in a 40 mph zone. When pulled over, he was told to stay in his car while the officer returned to his patrol vehicle to write a ticket. The young man instead approached the officer, told him to hurry and finish the citation so he could go home, then shoved the cop.
Advocates say people with autism become easily agitated under stress and their actions can be mistaken for criminal behavior.
District Attorney Sim Gill, whose office will screen the case, established a mental-illness court 10 years ago when he was Salt Lake City's chief prosecutor. In that venue, the emphasis was on treatment, not punishment.
Sandy spokeswoman Nicole Martin said most of Sandy's officers have undergone crisis-intervention training. But she said every traffic stop is potentially dangerous, so officers are always on heightened alert when someone acts aggressively.