Family of autistic teen killed by Illinois cops wants disability training to be required for all first responders
The Watts family of Calumet City had the unspeakable happen when their mentally disabled son, Stephon, was shot and killed by police officers.
The family is now speaking out about the tragedy in a Thursday story published by the Chicago Reader. Steven and Danelene Watts want the world to know the 15-year-old diagnosed with an autism disorder didn’t have to die.
“Steven would tell me, ‘Stop calling the police. They’re going to murder Stephon one day,’ ” Danelene told the Reader. Danelene is a Jamaican immigrant, and had a different experience with police officers than Steven, who grew up in Chicago.
Stephon had Asperger’s, a complicated developmental disability on the autism spectrum. It can lead to eccentric behavior and sufferers often can’t pick up on social cues. Stephon was 205 pounds, and his parents at times had to rely on first responders.
On February 1, 2012, Stephon, who wanted to be a computer programmer, was tussling with his father over a computer. Frustrated, his dad called the city’s non-emergency line for police assistance. He told the Reader he immediately regretted doing so.
“I knew I made a terrible mistake. Knew it, knew it, knew it,” Steven Watts recalled. He tried to get the dispatcher to cancel the response, but police were already on the way.
When they got there, Steven tried to shoo them away by saying his son was no longer at home. But Stephon called out to them, and Steven reluctantly let the cops in. What happened next, happened quickly.
Stephon emerged, and waved a knife. One of the officers reported being struck by the knife. Stephon’s family says it was a butter knife. Regardless, the officers shot him twice, killing him. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing in the subsequent investigation, NBC Chicago reports.
The Watts family points to the officers’ training. People with autism disorders are a whopping seven times more likely to encounter police officers than the rest of the population. Black people are also killed at a higher rate than whites by police. Both officers involved in the shooting death of Stephon reported they had only received autism-related training once, and both had been on the Calumet City police force for years.
The Watts family is trying to draft legislation requiring special training to deal with people with mental illness for all first responders nationwide, the Reader reports.
“We need the world to see that all first responders need training,” Danelene said through tears, a rubber Autism Speaks bracelet dangling from her wrist.
“What they need to understand is this person has a disability, and what they do is no fault of their own,” Danelene told the Reader. “They never asked to be born that way.”