Traffic Stops and Autism

Last weekend in Burbank (California, USA), a traffic stop resulted in the typical cry of police brutality.  A 16-year-old teen who was a passenger in his mother’s car became combative when the vehicle was pulled over and the officer spoke with the mother about the teen not wearing his seatbelt.

It wasn’t long before the mother ran to the media claiming that the family was “crushed” because the 16-year-old had been tasered by police during the traffic stop.

It sounds relatively straightforward in reading some of the shorter reports, but once the details are considered, the situation is straightforward but not in the way you might think.  Here are the facts based on the audio recording from the device he police officer was wearing at the time.

The car was pulled over because the verbal, high-functioning autistic 16-year-old teen wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. His mother’s excuse to the police officer was that she was in a hurry to get to where she was going, so she didn’t tell him to put his seatbelt on.  However, it’s the law in California (as it is in other states in the US and provinces in Canada) to wear seatbelts when in a vehicle, and it’s been the law for a long time now.  If a minor doesn’t know the law, it’s up to the adult in the vehicle (in this case, the 16-year-old’s mother) to make sure that he’s buckled up.

During the traffic stop, the teen was arguing aggressively with his mother. Please keep in mind that the officer’s job is to serve and protect, and part of that job sometimes entails protecting a mother from a 16-year-old son.  Undoubtedly, the officer took into consideration that the teen may or may not have mental health issues thereby explaining his approach to the situation.

Next, the teen argued aggressively with the police officer, telling him that he wanted to fight the officer “hand-to-hand.”  The officer chose to disregard this threat and to deal directly with the mother in a non-confrontational manner.

As the police officer explained to the mother that it’s the law for everyone to wear a seatbelt while in the vehicle, the teen interrupted the officer several times using inflammatory dialogue (as shown by the audio recording of the traffic stop). Rather than escalate the situation, the officer simply warned the mother, and decided against issuing a citation.

That’s the officer deescalating the situation.

The officer asked the teen to buckle up.  The teen said he would but only if the officer walked away.  So the officer stepped back from the vehicle and the teen did, indeed, put on his seatbelt.

That’s the officer further deescalating the situation.

However, the teen then removed his seatbelt and told the police officer that he was going to fight the officer “right now.”  He kicked the car door open into the officer’s legs.  The officer continued to deescalate the situation by not going on the offensive.

The teen dared the officer to call for back up, and directed the police officer to pepper spray him.

Obviously the police officer didn’t want the situation to escalate, and at that point, he chose not to pepper spray the aggressive teen.

The teen followed up with punching the officer in the upper body and in the head.

Now some people in the autism community are saying that the verbal, high-functioning autistic teen probably didn’t understand what was going on.

Kahn 1
Except that we do know that the teen isn’t so severely affected by autism that he doesn’t understand it’s the law to wear a seatbelt in the car.  We also know that it’s not an unwritten law that says “don’t attack the police.”  It’s a real law.  The charge for attacking a police officer is usually “Assault on a police officer.”

In any case, the attack on the officer put the officer in the position where he had to protect himself (because an incapacitated police officer and a violent teen regardless of a diagnosis of autism or a lack therein is a dangerous mix).  It’s at this point that the officer pepper sprayed the teen.   The pepper spray had marginal effect on the teen who continued to punch the officer multiple times.

Rather than pull his gun on the teen, and rather than place himself in a position where the teen could gain control of the officer’s gun, the officer tasered the teen to subdue him.

Again, some people in the autism community insist that perhaps this was a case of self-defense and that the teen’s actions were warranted.

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While there may be the rare circumstance where self-defense against a police officer is a viable and acceptable defense against assaulting a police officer, that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  In fact, had the teen buckled up and stayed buckled up, his mother would have been allowed to continue to their destination with nothing more than a warning from the officer.  There was nothing that would support the claim that the teen was defending himself against an assault by the police officer.

Based on audio recorded facts, the teen appears to be in the wrong, and using his autism as an excuse only places others with autism in danger of being stereotyped as “dangerous” and “violent” because they, too, have a diagnosis of autism.  We’ve seen this happen more and more often, and more and more often the media now speculates on whether a mass shooter has autism.

Remember that the police officer was willing to let the mother drive off with a warning provided that all the occupants in the vehicle were wearing seatbelts.

Remember that the teen decided to blow the situation up into an assault against the police officer.

Remember that the mother then went to the media, crying about the way her son was tasered with no mention about how her son provoked the situation.

And lastly, remember that autism is not a “get out of jail free” card to be played at will.  Just because someone feels entitled to do as they please doesn’t mean they can do as they please, even if they have a diagnosis of autism.  Laws exist for a reason, and usually the reason is to keep society as a whole safe from harm.

Elyse Bruce


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