Policing and special needs

If you’re the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, this is the kind of story that sends chills down your spine:

The video from former Statesville Police Officer Michael Fattaleh’s body camera shows him rushing across a classroom toward two women who are sitting with a small boy.

“OK, I’ve got him. He’s mine now,” Fattaleh says. He takes the 7-year-old, autistic child from the women, handcuffs the boy’s arms behind his back and presses him to the floor.

According to the video of the Sept. 11, 2018, incident, the student remains in that position for the next 38 minutes. Sometimes he sits quietly. Other times he sobs in apparent pain or pleads for Fattaleh to let him go.

“I’ve got all day, dude,” the officer says early in the encounter. “… If you are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be shortly.”

The boy’s crime? According to a new lawsuit filed by the child’s mother, identified as A.G., Fattaleh says he saw the special needs student spitting in a “quiet room” at the Pressly Alternative School in Statesville.

[…]

According to Charlotte attorney Alex Heroy, who is representing the boy’s mother, Fattaleh inappropriately injected himself into a situation without being summoned by the boy’s teachers, then used physical force that caused the child at times to scream out in pain.

“It’s one of the worst videos I’ve ever seen,” Heroy told the Observer on Friday.

“A school resource officer at a school for special needs students handcuffs and pins a 7-year-old boy to the ground for almost 40 minutes? There is never a need for that, particularly since there was never a threat of harm to anyone. The reported act was that the child spit on the floor. That should never justify this kind of a response to a kid, to a child.”

The mother’s lawsuit against Fattaleh, the city of Statesville and the Iredell-Statesville Board of Education was filed Friday in federal court in Charlotte.

Most of the acrimonious debate about American policing has centred around race, but as the Washington Post points out, many controversial cases have involved people with mental health issues:

With much of the country debating when and where police should be called on to help, the harrowing incident in North Carolina casts a light on two scenarios that some advocates argue should fall outside the roles of law enforcement: an urgent mental health crisis — and one taking place inside a school classroom.

Yet, as cash-strapped city budgets and safety concerns have pushed more officers into these sensitive situations, there have been no shortage of eerily similar incidents in the two years since Fattaleh resigned. Earlier this year, a 41-year-old Black man in Rochester, N.Y., was hooded and pinned during an incident that officers characterized as a mental breakdown. Like the boy in Statesville, Daniel Prude — who died a week later — had reportedly been spitting before the officers intervened.

In Vance County, N.C., a school resource officer was fired last December after he repeatedly slammed an 11-year-old to the floor of a middle school hallway. And last month, a 13-year-old with autism was shot and wounded by police in Salt Lake City after he made threats involving a weapon, officers said.

Does this mean police should not be involved in such cases at all? I’m not sure I’d go that far – sadly, sometimes people experiencing mental health crises really do pose a danger to society and to the professionals dealing with them, and force is absolutely necessary. Like most issues, it is far more complicated than either “abolish/defund the police” or “back the blue” advocates would have to you believe.

There’s no argument that people with special needs are being poorly served by the status quo, however. And Americans can bring about change by taking out their cameras and filming whenever they see a situation like this. And voting.

How an online mob destroyed an autistic person’s life

 

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Ancient curse: “may your name become a Twitter hashtag.”

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a case of an Australian writer siccing her Twitter followers on a “creep” who turned out to have autism.  I wondered if my own son, who is on the autism spectrum, could someday find himself the target of an angry online mob.

The “Doorway Debbie” fiasco, in which the internet launched its two-minutes’ hate upon a woman with autism, does not settle my nerves:

On a midsummer day in July, Darsell Obregon ducked under an apartment building to shelter herself from the rain while waiting for an Uber. Minutes later, the front door swung open and out walked a 19-year-old girl who demanded that Obregon leave the premises immediately. The resident’s name is Arabelle Torres, a 19-year-old student at Brooklyn College who also has autism.

“I came downstairs and a woman was standing as I am right now and wouldn’t leave,” Torres, who was describing the seeds of events that led her life to change, said to me while standing outside of her home in Park Slope. What might have been an unremarkable high-strung incident that occurs hundreds of times a day in New York City, ended up becoming a fake news story that race-baited an incident without credible evidence of bigotry.

“Hey, ma’am, this is private property. Could you please move?” Torres recounts saying to Obregon, an assistant to fashion model Ashley Graham, who “just flat-out refused” to leave the premises.

“After about ten times of me saying, ‘Ma’am, go. This is private property,’ [Obregon] still refused. So I called the cops,” Torres said. “As a person with autism, I [was] scared. When somebody is blocking me from leaving … it is a big problem. And I was alone in that situation.”

As Torres dialed 911, Obregon whipped out her phone and began filming. Later that evening — Torres was at a Broadway show — the words “worthless skank” popped up on her phone. As dozens more messages poured in, she found out that Obregon had posted the exchange on social media accounts accompanied with hashtags associated with race-related events (even though Obregon is not black).

Hashtags such as #WhitePrivilege and #BBQBecky were included. BBQ Becky refers to an event during which a white woman called the police on black people for barbecuing in a public park, saying it was illegal for them to do so.

The anti-racist internet mob found Obregon’s posts and began to launch a seek and destroy campaign against Torres. “Your Facebook is out there now. Enjoy being slaughtered by the masses,” a California woman wrote.

[…]

Tamar Lapin reported the story at the New York Post. Lapin found the story at Ebony Magazine, a black interest news site. According to Lapin, Ebony broke the story. She called Torres’ cellphone saying that she wanted to hear the “other side” of the event. Torres insisted that her 911 call “had nothing to do with race,” and that she herself was not white, and she wasn’t even sure that Obregon was black. “I told her, ‘I think you’re exploiting this as a race issue when it’s not.’”

Even after revealing she has autism to the reporter at The Post, Torres was devastated to learn that the article still maintained that it was a black-white issue. It would seem that nothing Torres could say would stop the domino effect of the fake news.

Months later, the internet still knows Torres as “Doorway Debbie.” She has made numerous attempts at suicide. “I felt that nobody was going to do anything, no one was going to face any repercussions unless I were to kill myself,” Torres said. “I tried to kill myself, I cut myself. I just felt so done and I felt ‘this is never going to get better,’”

This isn’t the first time a twitter mob has rushed to judgment against an innocent person, and it won’t be the last.  Here’s a good online rule no one lives by: if a news story seems to perfectly confirm your biases and preferred narrative, it may be too good to be true – or, perhaps more accurately, too bad to confirm your righteous indignation.