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updated: 7/9/2014 5:17 AM

How should police handle people with autism?

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  • Allison Kramer of Carpentersville acknowledges having a "meltdown" with police and attacking an officer. Her case, though, underscores the challenge for police in questioning people such as Kramer, who has autism.

       Allison Kramer of Carpentersville acknowledges having a "meltdown" with police and attacking an officer. Her case, though, underscores the challenge for police in questioning people such as Kramer, who has autism.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

Allison Kramer readily admits she had "a meltdown" when she threw a framed photo at a police officer and kneed him in the groin.

But she also described the officer as "antagonistic" and, five months later, remains steadfast that Carpentersville police poorly handled their visit to her house.

The offense? First responders asked too many questions too quickly and insinuated that Kramer, 34, might have flipped off her circuit breaker, causing the power outage that prompted her call to police on that frigid January night. The power outage was critical because her 75-year-old mother, Ruth, who shared the home with Kramer, was on an electrically powered oxygen machine.

Though characterizing Kramer as the aggressor, police did not arrest her, taking her instead to Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin for a mental health evaluation because of her agitated state. They also say today the officer who engaged Kramer "exercised excellent discretion."

All this would seem to indicate an open-and-shut case of an appropriate police response to a tricky situation.

But there's an important distinction about Allison Kramer: She has autism.

With substantial growth in the numbers of people diagnosed with autism, and police training on how to deal with them optional in many instances, Kramer's case underscores a delicate issue for police: How to question someone who might not handle it well?

"Even if they did everything right, she still could have thrown something at them," said Mary Kay Betz, executive director of the Autism Society of Illinois. "But studies show if you use the de-escalation methods, you have a better outcome."

Nonstop questions

In discussing the January incident at length with the Daily Herald, Allison Kramer wanted to remain calm. So she retold her version of events while rapidly rocking in a chair and reading from a script.

Kramer was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when she was 19.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website, Asperger syndrome is "an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of a distinct group of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties, and restrictive, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. ... The severity of communication and behavioral deficits, and the degree of disability, is variable. Asperger syndrome is considered by many to be the mildest form of ASD and is synonymous with the most highly functioning individuals with ASD."

Kramer says she is "highly functioning" but sensory issues make it difficult for her to function in the outside world. She doesn't work, says she has no friends, and takes medicine to control her mood and chronic anxiety. She often wears headphones to soften loud noises.

Her mother died in March, and Kramer's older sister moved in to look after her.

On the night Kramer called police, the responding officer asked her a barrage of questions, says Kramer, who also said she told the officer she has autism.

"I tried to explain to the antagonistic male officer that I could not handle his nonstop questions if he would not give me the time to speak," she said.

Fight or flight

Police officers today are likely to encounter more people with autism.

One in 68 American children has an autism spectrum disorder, 30 percent more than two years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study also found nearly half the children with an autism spectrum disorder have average or above-average intellectual ability compared with one-third of children 10 years ago.

In Illinois, police officer training on communicating with people with autism has been mandatory for newly hired officers since 2007, which means many officers have received no training, Betz said.

The decision on whether to undergo additional training rests with individual police departments, she said.

People with autism have to be approached differently, and first responders need to know how to neutralize encounters, Betz said.

For example, it could take between 15 and 20 minutes to calm down an autistic person before questioning can even start.

"There's a whole protocol on how first responders should obviously make sure everyone is safe, but if there wasn't a fire ... or if no one was hurt, they could have really de-escalated the situation before (Kramer) got into that fight or flight mode," Betz said.

'Sensory overload'

The Carpentersville police report says that in addition to the power outage, Kramer told the dispatcher she was having breathing and anxiety issues.

Officer Eric Holzer arrived, and after seeing the rest of the block had power, he checked the Kramer home's circuit box and saw its main switch was set to "off." Holzer flipped it to "on," which restored the power.

Holzer asked the Kramers whether they'd turned the power off themselves and the younger Kramer said she had the week before, but not that night.

Within the first five to 10 minutes of the call, Kramer said she told the officer she has autism. The police report said her older sister gave them the same information on the phone.

Kramer said police and paramedics were "barking" too many questions at her about the outage, didn't give her enough time to respond and suggested she deliberately turned the power off. The noise from the sirens and the radios and the lights from the service vehicles also disturbed her.

Taken together, the events ignited a "sensory overload," and Kramer says she snapped. She removed a framed picture from the wall and threw it at Holzer. It landed a couple of feet away from him and broke.

What happened next is in dispute.

Kramer says Holzer told her she was going to jail and started coming toward her. Conversely, the police report says she ran at the officer as she yelled at him.

In either case, Holzer grabbed her arms and told her to stop. Kramer kneed him in the inner thigh. Holzer put her on the couch, held her down, and with other officers, handcuffed her. Kramer kneed him a second time during the scuffle, this time in the groin, the police report said.

"I did what most women would do when being attacked by a male," Kramer said. "Uniform or not, I fought back and I kicked him."

Officers placed Kramer in a squad car and took her to Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin for an evaluation. She was not arrested, due to her mental state, the police report said.

Training followed

Carpentersville Public Safety Director Al Popp says Holzer, a seven-year veteran, acted appropriately. "I thought he exercised excellent discretion," Popp said.

Kramer has had other contacts with police, they say. She has previously complained about someone setting off fireworks near the public works building and has also asked police to address noisy children in her neighborhood.

Holzer's training, though, on how to approach people with autism was limited to a 13-minute police video on the topic, said Deputy Police Chief Michael Kilbourne.

In June the Carpentersville Police Department hosted an autism course through North East Multi-Regional Training Inc., a training organization for law enforcement.

The eight-hour course, provided by Giant Steps Therapeutic Day School in Lisle, offered the latest information on autism spectrum disorders and how to properly manage people who have it.

Holzer and another Carpentersville officer were among those attending the course. They will share what they learned with the police department later this year, Kilbourne said. Autism training occurs every other year in Carpentersville.

"Autism for us is a known situation in our community that we have to be prepared to respond to and address professionally," he said.

Russell Laine, past president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said in Illinois the training officers receive is not extensive, but it gives them a basic understanding on how best to approach people with autism.

Overall, police departments are learning how best to serve people with special needs. It's a challenge because officers require a different type of training, he said.

"It's complicating, but it's something we need to do," said Laine, also Algonquin's police chief.

After the Kramer incident, Kilbourne sent an email about it and Asperger syndrome throughout the department to ensure officers are aware of Kramer and her diagnosis. Otherwise, the matter hasn't prompted the department to change any of its procedures.

"I don't think we're doing anything differently whatsoever," Popp said. "We followed our training and protocols on this."

Kramer says she doesn't trust the Carpentersville police but acknowledges she was wrong to attack Holzer. She wrote him a letter of apology.

"I apologized to the police officer because I thought I should do the Christian thing," Kramer said. "And I can't be a Christian if I can't forgive somebody, whether I feel like it or not."

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