Reginald Latson is an African American autistic young man. I heard about his story through Breaking Brown news site that posted an article by Ruth Marcus of Washington Post. After I read what he had to go through and how simple this all started – it woke me up. Given the recent tension between law enforcement and the Black community nationwide, I think it is important that we are vigilant in assuring our autistic children are protected and save when they become autistic Black boys and autistic Black men.
Neli as he is called lives in Virginia and on a regular day went to the library which happened to be closed at the time. As with almost all autistic people, coming back is often not an option. In other words, a nuero-typical person would’ve said since it is closed now, I will just come back later. For autistic individuals, they have to have or get what they asked or want and don’t always comprehend the come back part. So, as Neli waits in front of the library, some ignorant person calls the police and says there is Black man waiting around wearing a hoodie (that must be a dress code for a thug). When the officer shows up – like any officer, he asks his name. And, Neli being autistic does not readily give his name. Let me put this in a context that those not dealing with autism can understand. When your child is first diagnosed with autism and if you are lucky enough to take him/her to an early intervention therapy, such as ABA – the first and only thing they often teach for months is “compliance”. You ask and the child complies. Simple things like “come sit”. or “what is your name”. In other words, non compliance is a characteristic of the autism disability.
The difference is when a child is in a therapy environment and they are non compliant, they don’t get their reinforcement such as candy, swing or tickles. When that child grows up becomes an adult or teenager and is non-compliant especially towards an officer, the consequences can be unimaginable which is exactly what happened. Nelli and the officer fought whereby the officer ended up with severe injuries.
As a result, the autistic teenager got arrested, charged and convicted which I am still trying to figure out how a prosecutor in his right mind would ever charge a person with autism for doing fight or flee which is a characteristic of their disability. But, that is what VA prosecutor Eric Olsen did. I am also confused how a jury would then convict Neli and did not instead recommend that he is sent to a mental health treatment facility. This is why Neli’s story got a lot of national media attention, the pure bias in the justice system towards Black and Brown Americans even when they have a disability. As we all know which I hope politicians and justice advocacy groups lobby and change this stupid law is that a prosecutor has the “discretion” to charge or not charge. To me that seems a privilege power that is unchecked and often unreasonable. If you research prosecutorial discretion and racial bias, you will find how it has benefited non-minorities while it has harshly been applied to minorities. Statistic after statistic in Minnesota and nationwide clearly state how a prosecutor’s discretion has led to unjust justice for minorities while it benefited nonminority communities. Here is that statute for Minnesota and my hope is that data is collected and this law is repealed or amended to assure equal justice for all actually means equal justice for all Americans irrespective of their race, ethnicity, nationality or disability. I also hope minority community leaders use their votes as a negotiating tool during elections of prosecutors/county attorneys.
For instance, in Minnesota there are 87 counties that have elected 87 county attorneys/prosecutors and guess how many are minorities? really guess – you will be shocked. Zero are Black, one is Asian, Ramsey County attorney and most of these counties have almost no Black or Brown county staff attorneys. So, next time a Nelli happens and it is up to the discretion of the county attorney – guess how he will use that discretion. Insanity is having the same policy and expecting different outcome. If we want equality then we must change and vote differently – period. The county attorneys/prosecutors must reflect the diversity of this nation.
So what happens now for Neli?
One option is for Governor of VA – Terry McAuLiffe (previous DNC chair – Democratic National Committee, the party that tells us they are compassionate and kind towards disabled people and minorities) who won majority of the Black vote to pardon Neli. Another is for this prosecutor to act like a human being and send Nelli to a treatment center that has been recommended by every therapist and professional that testified. I am also hopeful this clearly out of touch prosecutor who lacks compassion is defeated in next election because voting for the same people and expecting different outcome is insane and stupid.
If you want to help – you can send a letter to Gov of VA by simply asking to pardon Reginald Latson. (address is 1111 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219 or call 804-786-2211) Many autism advocacy organizations have sent letters and have advocated for Nelli including Arc in Virgina which has been amazing. I spoke with Arc and all I can say is wow!. Autism Speaks co-founders also sent a support letter and Neli’s story has attracted lots of national media attention highlighting the need to educate law enforcement about autism. I think preventing another Neli is through education and awareness. I ask Autism Soc of Minn, Arc Twin Cities and Pacer to reach-out to all 87 county attorneys, department of public safety, and police chiefs around the state and educate them that not giving their name is non compliant which is a part of their disability, running means flight or flee which is a part of their disability, not looking at you in the eye is part of their disability, not responding to their name is part of their disability, etc. Law enforcement cannot punish people with disabilities because of their disability. We must have compassion for those that are disabled and find ways to help them to live to their God given full potential. There is a great agency in Minnesota called Twin Cities Diversity in Practice that helps law enforcement with diversity staffing and training.
I also encourage parents to put some kind of bracelet or clothing that lets the uneducated eye know this person has autism. It is a tough world for Black boys and men and autism just adds to that already bias lenses. I would also recommend having an aide or PCA with your child if you think they can’t effectively communicate or maybe a communication device and teach them how to use it if approached by law enforcement.
Finally, I hope the Federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) holds a meeting about autism and law enforcement and invites department of justice along with advocate groups that do training and education for law enforcement.
Above words do not reflect any agency, candidate or committee.
Idil – Somali Autism Mom & Minority Advocate