“All he has is a toy truck. A toy truck. I am a behavior therapist at a group home.”
These were the words Charles Kinsey, an African-American man and behavioral therapist, spoke to police when they confronted him as he was trying to calm his patient, an autistic man named Rinaldo. Someone had called 911 to report a suicidal man with a gun. Facing police with guns drawn (an odd response to a potential suicide), Kinsey is lying down with his hands up, calmly but urgently imploring Rinaldo, who had escaped from the group home, to also lie on the ground. Like many people with autism, Rinaldo doesn’t, or can’t, follow directions well. Kinsey tries to keep tabs on him, while pleading with the police not to shoot. Then an officer shoots him, for no apparent reason. Rinaldo continues to play with his toy truck. There is nothing about this scene that implies anything other than what Kinsey said it was: He was a behavioral therapist trying to keep his client safe. He’s a hero, in other words.
Thanks to a quick-thinking bystander with a cell phone, we can now add this heartbreaking incident to the virtual epidemic of African-American men getting shot by the police, even as they make every effort to comply with cops’ demands. That Kinsey was shot as he was trying to help a man with autism doubles the pain.
Lately, as our autistic son J. grows up, I’ve been afraid of what might happen to him, especially as he has turned 16. While many people think of Rain Man, that’s not the kind of autism J. has—he’s still learning how to read and recently stopped wearing diapers. If a fire broke out, he wouldn’t know to leave the room. Therefore, when he’s not with my husband and me, he has an aide with him at all times. Sometimes, there’s an aide with us when we are all home—that’s the kind of help he needs.
Figuring forewarned is forearmed, since J. had his first unstoppable, crowd-gathering tantrum when he was 4 years old, I’ve been collecting morbid stories of trigger-happy police confronting adults with cognitive disabilities—often using force and violence first and asking questions later. They didn’t bother to understand disability, and the outcome is a nightmare, like this man with Down syndrome who refused to leave a movie theater and ended up killed by police. My husband and I have already had the experience of having the cops called on us in the parking lot of Whole Foods, of all places, and we just happened to be lucky enough to get a cop whose nephew is autistic. The officer couldn’t have been kinder; the paranoid lady who called the police drove away before I could confront her.