15-year-old Stephon Watts was shot by police on Wednesday and later pronounced dead. Stephon was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of nine. According to the Chicago Tribune, Calumet City police had been summoned ten times to his family’s residence in less than two years, to “subdue” the teenager using tasers.
The†Chicago Tribune gives this account.
On Wednesday, officers were called again to the teen’s home, where two officers found Watts in his basement wielding a kitchen knife. Watts “lashed out” with the knife and struck one of the officers in the forearm, said police Chief Edward Gilmore.
“At that time, cornered and having no way to retreat back up the stairs, the officers fired one shot each, striking the (boy) twice,” Gilmore said. “Unfortunately, the officer thought that his life was in jeopardy.”
Watts’s parents questioned the police for firing at their son, as they had not previously done so. Danelene Powell-Watts said “They didn’t have to murder him. This is nothing but murder.” Watts’s father, Steven Watts, witnessed the police shooting at his son and asked:
“They’re trained to disarm people. Why did they have to use deadly force on a 15-year-old autistic kid?”
While Steven Watts said that his son was shot in the leg and then, on moving, shot in the head, Gilmore says that he was “not being told” about this and was waiting for the coroner’s report.
Police Didn’t Have to Fire at Stephon
On Wednesday morning, Stephon said that he did not want to go to school; his father took away his computer and put it in the basement of their home. The teen reportedly “tussled” with his father, who followed instructions that doctors and social workers had given the family to contact police when their son became agitated. These instructions were why police had made a number of previous visits to the Watts’ house; their address was “flagged” in the police’s system as a residence having “an autistic young man there who is very strong and likes to fight with the police,” says Gilmore. Indeed, all†84 Calumet City police officers had undergone training about dealing with autistic individuals and the lead officer who responded to the call had been at the Watts’s home before.
On previous calls, Watts had wielded knives, once barricading himself in a bathroom until a police negotiator intervened. Another time, after hitting his mother in the face, Watts had fled his house with a knife and was subdued by police using a taser.
I mention these details because the police had a record of dealing with Stephon Watts and they will need to explain why they fired this time and used excessive force, with fatal results.
Furthermore, the fact that Watts’s family had been told that they were to call the police when Stephon became agitated reveals how inadequate social services for autistic teenagers and teenagers with Asperger’s are. I know this because my son Charlie is just about the same age as Stephon and just as tall. When Charlie is agitated, things can be very difficult, largely due to the fact that he has very limited verbal and communication abilities to tell us what is bothering him, and also few outlets for letting out frustations and anger.
The record of the Watts’s previous calls to the police should have been a red flag that the family needed many more supports for Stephon. Calling the police should only be a last resort in crisis situations. Stephon’s tragic death should be a wake-up call to the dire need for more community-based supports and services for individuals with disabilities.
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