A police shooting that wounded a 13-year-old autistic boy in Salt Lake City is revealing shortfalls in the way officers respond to a mental health crisis, an advocacy group said Wednesday, a part of policing that's facing renewed scrutiny during nationwide protests over brutality by law enforcement.
Similar questions are being raised in Rochester, New York, following the death of a Black man whose brother called police about his unusual behavior shortly after a mental health evaluation. It comes as demonstrators have urged cities to “defund the police” and shift money to social services instead.
In Utah, the boy survived with serious injuries. He appears to be white based on a photo posted online by his mother, Golda Barton, although police have not provided his race. Barton says she called 911 on Friday night because he was having a breakdown and she needed help from a crisis-intervention officer.
The Salt Lake City officers who came were not specialists in crisis intervention but had some mental health training, and they ended up shooting the boy as he ran away because they believed he made threats involving a weapon, authorities said. There was no indications he had a weapon.
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An officer trained in crisis response would have handled the situation differently, focusing on deescalation and avoiding shouting or using sirens, which can be disorienting, said Sherri Wittwer, board president of CIT Utah, a nonprofit that provides crisis intervention training for law enforcement.
“Someone who’s in a mental health crisis ... may have different behaviors,” Wittwer said. “And that’s why we need to have officers who understand the different ways that can look.”
Some police departments even undergo training specifically on communicating with people with autism, a developmental disorder that can involve varying degrees of language and social impairment.
The Salt Lake Police Department has about three officers who are crisis-intervention specialists, but they don't respond to every call involving mental health issues, said Detective Michael Ruff, a department spokesman. He stood by the department’s model, which includes giving every new recruit 40 hours of crisis-intervention training at its police academy.
“We’re very comfortable with the program we used and with the individuals who are teaching it,” he said. “There’s more than one way to be CIT trained.”
Ruff declined to say what tactics the officers used to deescalate the situation before shooting the boy. The department says it will cooperate with multiple investigations.
But for Wittwer, the case is an example of why the state needs a unified, consistent program. In 2016, Salt Lake City police opted out of the training her group provides.
“When people call for an officer, they’re in their most vulnerable state, and they need to have trust in who will be coming to their door," she said.
The officers’ names, body-camera video and 911 call records have not been released.
The boy's mother, meanwhile, told Salt Lake City’s KUTV that she informed police her son has autism, was unarmed and did not know how to regulate his behavior.
Barton hoped they would help deescalate the situation and calm him down. Instead, two officers who entered her home told her son to “get down on the ground” and shot him.
“He’s a small child,” Barton told the TV station. “Why didn’t you just tackle him? He’s a baby. He has mental issues.”
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.