Matthew Rushin is a young, Black autistic man. A year and a half ago, he was a mechanical engineering student at Old Dominion University. In January of 2019, Matthew was involved in a car accident. Within hours, he was charged by a magistrate with attempted murder. He is currently serving a 50 year sentence with 40 years suspended.
This is part 2 of a series covering the details of Matthew Rushin’s case. For more background, please click here to read part 1.
Unanimous Public Outrage – Lack of Police Training
After Part 1 of this series published, there was a resounding cry from readers that police officers must be trained to understand autistic neurology and behavior.
Of course, the logical explanation for how Matthew Rushin was treated was that the Virginia Beach Police Department and justice system didn’t know how to interpret, autistic communication and behavior.
Anyone who is involved with the autistic community knows that autistic people are at high risk of having negative interactions with police officers. A primary concern for teens and adults is that officers will view autistic tone, body language, stimming, and communication as aggressive, sarcastic, untrustworthy, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
So I called the Virginia Beach Police Department (VBPD) and asked.
Virginia Beach Police Department – Training Officers in Autism
I was transferred to the office of public affairs to speak to MPO (master police officer) Kuehn. I explained that I was a writer and nonprofit CEO and wanted to know about their degree of officer training for equipping officers to understand, respond to, and support autistic people.
Kuehn was very cordial and helpful and let me know that it was a priority for their department, and that all officers are trained, “extensively and intensively,” both at the training academy and while on the force through in-service trainings.
From there, my questions were more specific than she was able to answer off-hand, so she gave me her email address and offered to forward my questions to the department that oversees the VBPD outreach and training regarding autism.
Here are the questions that I sent to the VBPD office of public affairs:
1. Does the City of Virginia Beach train officers to recognize and interact with autistic individuals? When are officers trained (at the academy, during professional development, during continuing education in-services, etc.)
2. How long has VBPD been providing these trainings? Are all officers trained? For how long has training officers in understanding autism been a standard practice?
3. How are the trainings administered (online course, in-service with psychologists or consultants, etc.)? Are they with local experts and practitioners or through a commercially-available system?
4. Is there any literature available that shares some of the information in which officers are trained, or could you detail some of the ways officers are trained to:
-differentiate between intoxication/chemical influence and autistic behaviors
-interact with autistic individuals
-de-escalate autistic individuals when in panic
-support autistic individuals through the justice system
-understanding autistic communication/communication styles and accommodating for it
If you have something that is already in print that would save labor for you, it would be fine to send that instead of re-inventing the proverbial wheel.
I am still waiting on a response.
Public Face of The Virginia Beach Police Department
While waiting to hear from VBPD, I decided to try and find information about how VBPD is trained in autism.
November 18, 2015
From a WTKR article entitled “How do police agencies handle calls for service involving people with autism?”:
We reached out to several local police agencies to learn about their policies when it comes to autism. The responses were different.
Virginia Beach Police say they’ve gone as far as to make sure every officer has been trained on how to handle calls involving people with autism.
They also have certain people like Lt. [Shannon] Wichtendahl who specialize in autism.
“We as a police department have a responsibility to educate, to train ourselves with all disabilities with all walks of life, and that is what we do here in Virginia Beach,” said Wichtendahl.
So in 2015, more than three years prior to Matthew’s accident, every single VBPD officer was trained. The VBPD has a commitment to autistics, apparently, so much so that they have officers who are experts in autism.
October 29, 2015
An official press release from the VBPD on the government website details two programs, the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), and Project Lifesaver.
Below is a description of each program to remind citizens of services rendered by [VBPD] or an introduction of those services to those unaware that such services are provided by the City. Additionally, included is a recent testament to the values of these services and the dedication of those police officers and other city and community partners to help those in need.
How noble. They’re dedicated to help “those in need.”
Who are “those” people?
Crisis Intervention Team
Citizens were reminded of the VBPD’s dedication to serving whom?
Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) are designed to reduce negative interactions between individuals with serious mental illness and law enforcement officers, including incidents of violence, and to divert individuals from punitive incarceration to appropriate medical treatment.
So, with diagnoses of traumatic brain injury (TBI), autism, ADHD, anxiety, and PTSD, would Matthew have qualified as someone with “serious mental illness”?
To be clear, autism, ADHD, and TBIs are not mental illnesses, but each can predispose someone to mental health crises and profound difficulty with emotion regulation. Matthew was not even two years recovered from a car accident that left him in a coma and necessitated that he had to learn to walk again.
Officers noted at the scene that he was disoriented with slurred speech. He said he wished he was dead.
I’d say that qualifies as needing a crisis intervention team.
A CIT is meant to assist even violent offenders get the mental health care they need so that mental health crises are not criminalized for psychiatric crises. Matthew was never violent at any point in his life, but the system is in place to help people who are not in control of their actions because of mental health crises.
On the National Alliance on Mental Illness which facilitated officer training in the Virginia Beach area:
Not only can CIT programs bring community leaders together, they can also help keep people with mental illness out of jail and in treatment, on the road to recovery. That’s because diversion programs like CIT reduce arrests of people with mental illness while simultaneously increasing the likelihood that individuals will receive mental health services. CIT programs also:
Sounds great, right? Especially if VBPD is so committed to the cause.
According to the VBPD press release:
Studies show that CIT trained officers identify individuals who need psychiatric care and are 25% more likely to transport an individual to a psychiatric treatment facility than other officers. CIT training also reduces officer stigma and prejudice toward people with mental illness.
So all of these officers are trained in mental health and crisis intervention, as well as in autism.
April 2, 2019 – Autism Awareness Day
From an official VBPD bulletin [emphasis mine]:
The Virginia Beach Police Department has worked on many programs and initiatives over the years to educate our officers and the public on Autism safety issues and bring awareness to our community about resources we have available to assist individuals with Autism.
Our officers all attend training on Autism and Law Enforcement interactions to help give us each a better understanding and strategies in dealing with individuals with Autism. We have taught educational classes to caregivers on the dangers that we see often effecting [sic] our Autism community. We also offer programs like Project Lifesaver and Child Safe ID for our community members with Autism.
So not only are they all trained, but they offer training to the public.
As a mother to an autistic child, this is a nightmare. This makes me want to bunker down in my house with my child and never leave. This breaks my heart at the cellular level for Matthew’s mother.
These people teaching safety trainings to parents are the same people who would rob Matthew’s mother of a life with her son. This is how they feel about autistic people– they are needy and helpless and unsafe until they hit 18, at which point the police will take everything from them.
Matthew, who was bleeding and injured and in autistic meltdown, who had said, “I wish I was dead,” was interrogated on scene for four hours, then taken back to the VBPD 2nd precinct where the interrogation was continued at the jail.
Despite his pervasive distress and list of diagnoses, and despite obvious injuries, he received no mental healthcare or medical attention.
In fact, they were so insistent that he was trying to kill himself that they pressed for an attempted murder charge that night, yet they ignored their own “commitment” to his mental health needs. Matthew was even denied bond because they insisted he was a danger to himself, but yet, they did not attempt to obtain mental health care for him.
Virginia has the largest Project Lifesaver operation in the world. It’s an organization three central purposes, according to the Project Lifesaver website:
1. Location Technology – provide technology to assist in the prevention and location of individuals with cognitive conditions who are prone to elopement.
2. Innovative Search and Rescue Methods – Project Lifesaver has designed techniques for recovering individuals with cognitive conditions who have eloped.
3. Community Policing Courses – Project Lifesaver provides first responders with training about cognitive disabilities and how to safely return someone who has eloped to their parents.
I called Virginia Beach Project Lifesaver and spoke to a coordinator there. He actually told me to contact the VBPD and said the police department took over the management of Project Lifesaver years prior.
Matthew was not even allowed to see or speak to his parents before being charged with attempted murder.
Police Presence the Scene
On January 4, 2019, did it just so happen that the officer who responded was unaware? Did he just get a “bad egg”? Is it possible that the VBPD is tolerant and understanding of mental health crises, and that they really do care about ensuring that people who are experiencing mental health crises are not criminalized for those issues?
Did Matthew just get really unlucky with the officer who responded to the scene, and his treatment was not a reflection of the true reception of people in crisis or with developmental, neurological, and mental health diagnoses? Is it possible that there was just the one “bad cop” this time?
That might be worth considering, except for seventeen officers responded to the 911 call.
SEVENTEEN OFFICERS RESPONDED TO THE 911 CALL
This is Matthew Rushin.
Matthew is a self-proclaimed mama’s boy.
He was unarmed, crying, disoriented, stimming, unraveling, and totally compliant.
Why did seventeen officers respond to a single person?
What is clear is that if seventeen officers witnessed Matthew’s duress, if he was accounted on someone’s police body camera for every second consistently explaining over and over that he lost control of the vehicle, then the VBPD cannot claim to be committed to supporting “those who have a need” for mental health services. Or to autistics.
But the seventeen officers arrived before knowing Matthew was autistic.
Does that mean that VBPD’s anti-Black racism is so deeply entrenched that it overrides a commitment to disabled individuals and people in mental health crises?
Because it would have been exponentially easier to digest that the Virginia Beach Police Department was NOT trained to respond to autistic people, that they did NOT understand autistic behavior and neurology, and that they did NOT know how to respond to mental health crises.
But they were trained. “Extensively” and “intensively.”
So they used their knowledge to neglect, exploit, and frame a Black autistic mechanical engineering student for attempted murder, denied him bond, denied him access to health care, and sentenced him to a decade in prison.
To be continued…
Click here for article 3 about how what happened to Matthew is every parent’s worst nightmare.
This is article 2 in a series of articles covering the details of the Matthew Rushin wrongful imprisonment case.
Please stay tuned to NeuroClastic for explosive details about political and police corruption, footage and evidence from Rushin’s case, media reports from the case, and interviews with Rushin’s family.
Please review this petition from 757 Black Lives Matter to Governor Ralph Northam which contains more information about Rushin’s case and sign the petition, which currently (at the time of publication) has approximately 27,000 signatures.
Yesterday, the petition was at 14k at the time of publication. Thank you to the autistic community, to Black Lives Matter 757, and all the allies who are fighting for justice for Matthew Rushin.
- Thank You, Autism Speaks: You accidentally proved me right about Autistic instincts - November 21, 2021
- Hecklers from the Penn State conference not finished: Drexel professor decides which Autistics are really autistic - November 7, 2021
- The Identity Theory of Autism: How Autistic Identity Is Experienced Differently - October 17, 2021