In 2019, Larry Mackey, an officer at Omni Middle School in Boca Raton, handcuffed Erik, an eleven-year-old autistic student, and transported him to a psych hospital. The psychiatric professionals at JFK Medical Center North released Erik mere minutes after he arrived at the facility.
After evaluating Erik, the medical professionals believed he was not a threat to anyone and thought his confinement was “absurd.”
Officer Mackey intervened in an instance where Erik was defending himself against peers who were physically assaulting him.
Rewarding the Bullies
Many autistic children find themselves the target of bullies because they don’t adhere to societal conventions that make no logical sense. Unfortunately, many schools fail to identify and reprimand bullies. Sometimes, the victims are unfairly the ones who are singled out for punishment.
In Erik’s case, his peers broke his water bottle, stole his sweater, and hit him during class. Yet, these students weren’t handcuffed and transported to a psych center for evaluation.
The Baker Act
Florida has a law called the Baker Act which grants law enforcement officers the “authority to initiate an involuntary examination of persons when they meet certain criteria and are unable or unwilling to consent to the examination themselves” and to transport them to local mental health facilities for involuntary evaluation.
The Baker Act pertains to people who have mental health diagnoses, but law enforcement officers can also use the Baker Act on people who they suspect have a mental illness, especially if they suspect the person is a threat to themselves or to others.
Autism is Illegal
The Baker Act itself is inherently flawed and prejudicial against autistic people. Law enforcement officers are instructed to watch out for the following behaviors:
- Rapid speech
- Flight of thought
- No eye contact
- Quick movements
- Disconnected speech patterns
- Constant movement
- Can’t concentrate
- Swift and frequent mood changes
- Disorganized thoughts
Many of the behaviors are common in autistic people as a part of their normal body language, but autism is not a mental illness. Most autistic people would demonstrate all of those behaviors if being interrogated by police as they can be signs of anxiety.
Autism is a developmental neurotype. Law enforcement officers do not have the medical training needed to accurately diagnose complex mental health or neurodevelopmental disorders.
Moreover, it is demeaning, patronizing, and abusive to suggest that autistic people don’t have the ability to give consent because they meet a set of biased criteria. This profiling contributes to the harmful and fallacious stereotype that autistic people have violent tendencies.
Mackey later amended his initial police report and said that Erik allegedly stepped in front of a bus and said: “I want to die.”
According to Erik’s guardian, Larissa Leander, “Erik wouldn’t understand the idea of ‘suicidal.’ He is really very immature and a very innocent, happy child.” Both Leander and Erik’s mother believe Mackey lied in his report to justify his hasty decision to confine Erik.
Children need to feel safe in their schools. They need to be able to trust members of the law enforcement community. Laws like the Baker Act discriminate against autistics and undermine their sense of security and relationships between autistic people and community leaders.
- Florida’s Baker Act Gives Police Authority to Handcuff Children for Having Autistic Traits - June 8, 2020
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- 50 Things with PatrickMagpie – You Know You’re Autistic When & Small Talk Alternatives - May 31, 2019