MIAMI: Autism awareness training is essential in today’s society, and Florida’s legislature is currently moving on a bill that will require this training. The need to pass a bill like this started to gain momentum after a high profile incident occurred in South Florida last summer, involving law enforcement agencies and an autistic black man.
In July of 2016, Charles Kinsey was shot in Miami. He was unarmed. This news was published in several leading newspapers and soon became a national headline.
Why did this incident garner so much attention?
Charles Kinsey is a therapist and was with his patient, Arnaldo Rios, who is diagnosed with autism. Video footage shows Kinsey lying on the ground, trying to reason with the officers.
The officers argue that they were responding to a suicide attempt call. As Kinsey tries to calm Rios, one officer shoots Kinsey—who had not put down his hands.
“I still got my hands in the air,” said Kinsey, speaking to WSVN. ‘And, I said, ‘you know I just got shot.’ And, I asked him, ‘sir, why did you shoot me?’ And, he said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Kinsey further added that he not only worried about himself, but about his patient, Rios.
“I was really worried…more worried about him than myself, because I’m thinking, as long as I’ve got my hands up they’re not going to shoot me,” Kinsey added. “This is what I’m thinking. Wow, was I wrong!”
The police union who represented the officer said that they believed Arnaldo Rios was in possession of a gun, although in reality it was a toy truck. This also meant that the shot was being directed at the autistic man.
Matthew Dietz, a lawyer representing Rios and his family, said that whatever happened, it was completely wrong.
“‘We didn’t mean to shoot the African American guy. We meant to shoot the man with the disability’ is the height of ableism,” said Dietz. “It makes a person with a disability’s life worth nothing. It makes them not even a human. After they knew that he had autism, what did they do? They threw him on the ground. He’s sensitive to touch. He’s sensitive to noise. He didn’t know what was happening. They kept him in a police car for three to four hours. There’s no excuse.”
Rios continued to be traumatized even a week after the incident, recalled Rios’s mother Miriam and his sister Gladys Soto.
“He’s still traumatized,” said Miriam, translating for her mother. “He’s having night terrors. He’s not sleeping. He’s not eating. He’s not the same anymore. He’s still wearing the same clothes from the accident with Charles’ blood…”
Lobbyist Susan Goldstein says even after six months, Rios’s condition is the same and he still continues to be traumatized.
“It was very traumatic to this poor child, and he is a child, even though he looks like an adult,” said Goldstein. “He was cognitively probably around four-five years old. And he has been in turmoil since.”
Goldstein highlighted that this is one of the many reasons she supports the bill by Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) and Rep. Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach).
The bill, when fully implemented, will have a positive effect. As many as 1 out of 68 kids in United States is autistic.
“And, what this bill does is require the Department of Law Enforcement to establish a constant employment training component relating to autism spectrum disorder,” said Thurston. “This constant training will count toward the continued employment of 40 hours with each department and would have specific instructions on how law enforcement responds to citizens with autism spectrum disorder for officers to be able to identify the symptoms and characteristics.”
The bill was recently passed unanimously by both the houses.