Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Tragic Case of Stephon Watts

Of the posts I have written, this has been the toughest. I purposefully delayed publishing my thoughts on this subject publicly because it was very difficult for me to write about this story without becoming incredibly angry. My anger is primarily focused on two things. I hoped that with time the anger would subside and I could write without my judgment and opinion being clouded. I do not know that I have been entirely successful, but here it is… the tragic case of Stephon Watts.

Photo from JUSTICE FOR STEPHON WATTS!!! Facebook page.

Stephon Watts was a 15 year old Aspie that was shot to death by the Calumet City, Illinois Police responding to a call for help from the boy’s father. The story is sad and disturbing on multiple levels. This child was failed on almost every level on which he needed assistance. One can only hope that society can learn from this tragedy. With ASD being diagnosed in 1 out of every 110 and 1 in 70 boys, the police are going to face more and more challenges like they did in Stephon Watts’ home.

What do we know about Stephon Watts? Very little has been said about Stephon the individual other than by the police that describe him as being 5’ 10” and weighing around 220 pounds and his uncle described him as a computer genius. We know he had Asperger’s, but was he highly functional?  Was he able to make social connections? Did he suffer from anxiety? Did he suffer from sensory issues? A request to the family via the JUSTICE FOR STEPHON WATTS!!! Facebook page was not answered.

The facts surrounding the events the day Stephon was killed are certainly not complete. The facts that seem to be indisputable since they have been mentioned by both the family and the Chief of Police are that Stephon had a history of being combative and aggressive. By some estimates, the police had been called to the Watts house a dozen times in the last year. According to both the Chief and the family, the house was well known and the department had been notified that Stephon had autism spectrum disorder. Another angle that I unfortunately think is very vital to this story is that the Watts family is African-American and appears to be of modest means while the officers were Caucasian.

So why is it that after coming to the house so many other times without killing anybody, that this time was different?

According to reports the Watts family was advised to call 911 by Grand Prairie Services, which operates a crisis intervention screening program for the state of Illinois should Stephon become violent and/or uncontrollable. That is exactly what happened the morning of February 1st. Agitated by his father not allowing him to play on his computer so that he could get ready for school, Stephon reached a point that his dad felt like he needed help. This is an important thing to keep in mind when thinking about the events that led to Stephon’s death. This was a call for HELP. There was no criminal on the loose. This was a child with a disorder. I have seen a lot of criticism of the Watts use of 911 as a kind of crisis management. While not ideal, I feel that this is an invalid criticism. It almost suggests that his family was “asking for it”. The argument is just as gross as saying a rape victim “asked for it” by wearing provocative clothing.

Have you ever called a mental health provider and gotten their answering machine? Do you know what it says? Let me tell you provide you with the transcript of a psychiatrist’s voicemail greeting:

“You have reached the office of Dr. #######. I am either out of the office or unable to take your call. Please leave a detailed message after the tone and I will return your call as soon as possible. In the event that this is an emergency, please dial 911 or head to the nearest emergency room. Thank you.”

Was this an emergency for the Watts family? The father (whom I met) is a small, frail man that is reportedly battling cancer. Remember that the police department is quick to point out the size of Stephon Watts as though his size alone was justification for lethal force. Whether you believe this to be an emergency or not, Stephon Watts’ father felt that the situation had gotten out of his control and judging by his general health, I would tend to agree.

When the police responded to the scene they found Stephon in the basement with what police describe as a “kitchen knife” but family referred to as a “butter knife”. Two officers went into the basement while two others stayed at the top of the stairs. According to the family, Stephon had the butter knife because he was trying to pry open the closet in which the father placed the computer and that he wasn’t intending to use it as a weapon. It is important to note however that Stephon has grabbed knives in the past as well. In one instance Stephon had to be Tasered in order to disarm him. The lead officer the day Stephon was killed, according to the Chief of Police, was not equipped with a Taser. According to the Chief of Police however, one of the officers in the basement did have a Taser.

When the police went into that basement, things went horribly wrong.  Reports vary, but we know that at some point Stephon lunged at an officer and cut him on the arm. The officers that were in the basement felt that their life was in danger, they each fired a shot striking Stephon in the chest. The 15 year-old boy was pronounced dead at Franciscan St. Margaret Health in nearby Hammond, Indiana.

Tragic… just tragic.

Some may want to file these observations as hindsight being 20/20, but law enforcement officials must have the public’s trust. In order to that, they must be held to a high standard. When they fail to meet that standard, they must be held accountable. That is what I hope happens to the officers that shot Stephon Watts. I am not denying that they may be affected deeply by having to kill Stephon. They very well could be placing more guilt on themselves than we could ever dream of doing. I do not believe for one moment that those officers went there with a premeditated plan to kill an autistic boy, but whether that was their intent… that is what happened. How could it have been avoided? I believe that ultimately they were forced to fire, but that their careless actions and lack of preparation and understanding allowed them no other option. They were unprepared despite ALL 84 officers attending a 3 day training course of dealing with individuals on the spectrum.

When one keeps in mind that this was a call for help and that the police were not responding to a murderer, rapist, gang-banger or criminal, it is inexcusable to me that non-lethal forms of action were not at least ATTEMPTED prior to the boy being shot. Stephon should have been pepper sprayed and/or Tasered from a safe distance LONG before he was shot.

When discussing the use of Tasers with some of my friends in law enforcement, they are quick to bring up the ”21 foot rule”. The "rule" states that the time it takes the average officer to recognize a threat, draw his sidearm and fire 2 rounds at center mass, an average subject charging at the officer with a knife or other cutting or stabbing weapon can cover a distance of 21 feet. So in other words, use your Taser at a distance unless you want to risk getting hurt. This is exactly what the officers did not do. They didn’t descend into the basement with that rule in mind. They did not even have Tazers drawn. With multiple officers, why couldn’t several officers have Tasers at the ready while others had their guns drawn in case they had to use them?

This was a call for HELP. Had this been an elderly white man suffering from Alzheimer’s instead of a young African-American boy do you think the officers would have reacted the same way? I do not. And I am not talking about a physical response… I am talking about the preparation before entering the house. The officers would have been prepared with non-violent means of stopping Stephon the moment they stepped out of their squad cars. Do you think the outcry would have been greater had Stephon been white? I do.  Here we are a whole two weeks removed from his death, and his name has already been forgotten by most of the general public… not me. I am not one that is quick to play the race card, but I do believe that Stephon’s race plays a part in his death. But I am also well aware that the feeling I have is just my opinion. I have no knowledge that any of these officers were racist or insensitive to people with special needs.

The officers could have tried to draw Stephon out of the house or upstairs… anything. What is the worst that could have happened had they let him stay in the basement and not force the issue? He could kill himself? I am sure the parents would have rather taken that risk.

The problem with the Calumet City Police Department seems to start with the top. Chief Edward Gilmore clearly did not attend his own autism sensitivity training as evidenced by his assessment of the actions of Stephon Watts. Gilmore said, “We tried to do everything we could to keep him from being a victim, as he was an offender. He chose to be an offender.”

I would love to interview Chief Gilmore. What could he possibly be thinking to make a statement like that? PUBLICLY nonetheless! I would like for Gilmore to explain to me in detail how he is so certain of Stephon’s mental processes  that he knows Stephon even had the capability to make a conscious decision like that. How exactly did Stephon CHOSE? Is Chief Gilmore suggesting to me that when Bianca strips naked and makes a poop mural on a wall that she CHOSE to do that? Is he saying that when Bianca starts to shut down and bangs her head into the wall, the floor, me, teacher’s aides that she is CHOSING to do that? Let me take the time to educate you sir… she is NOT. You know NOTHING about autism and how it manifests itself in people and chances are then that neither do your subordinates. At the very least you owe the Watts family an apology for your complete lack of education on the subject and your insensitive comments.

The other target of my anger is the system… yet again. The system set in place by the state to help those that need assistance is laughable. When will society learn that spending money on people when they are young always saves money in the long run? Even for those that are middle/upper class, the process of getting a diagnosis and setting up services is intimidating. I could go on much longer about how much I think the system needs to be changed, but I already did a 5 minute video on the subject. This nation needs to look at everything parents of ids with special needs have to go through and the discrimination they face at the hands of the health insurance industry and make some serious changes. How about instead of trying to reform the definition of autism in the DSM-5, the powers that be try to fix the system we are currently trying to deal with?

Photo from JUSTICE FOR STEPHON WATTS!!! Facebook page.

Rest in peace Stephon. So many people in the autism community know somebody just like you. That is what makes your story so scary and so tragic. I only hope that we see some genuine understanding and education come from your needless death.

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  1. Wow! That is all I can say! I really hope that the right people can read this some day. And I pray that changes are made! God bless the Watts family!

  2. I agree with Elsa's comment. Having a son who tends to react aggressively (at 9), I will admit that this is definitely something that I am petrified of happening in our future. The battles I fight at his school, specifically because they use the same "he chose" quote all of the time. It's infuriating. I pray peace for Stephon's family, and justice for him. I really wish there was a way that this story, and the story of so many others, could be first and foremost on the national news. I live in Florida, and had not heard about this incident until now. I am horribly saddened.