Illinois Police Shoot Teen With Asperger’s in His Home

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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Photo by adamsguns via Wikimedia Commons

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laura Frey
laura Frey11 months ago

DONT call cops for mental health situations EVER. 10 calls ?, wtf does one expect as the eventual outcome?

Jennifer P.
Jennifer P.2 years ago

There is nobody to blame completely in this situation. I was horrified at first when I read the headline from another article that linked to this, but reading the details (which I'm sure we don't have all of) makes me just sad. Not angry, not at the police, and not at the parents, who were following the previously set-out procedure, as were the police, most likely. it just escalated badly and ended tragically.

I think this case shows how badly necessary an overhaul is to our current mental health care system. If it wasn't such a stigma to put your child into an institution, or get more support and help - if the system wasn't currently so overwhelmed - this may have had a different outcome.

Judy Johnsen
Judy Johnsen2 years ago

I am sorry to say this but this individual sounds dangerous. I don't know of a good way to deal with a boy or a man with a knife and I don't belive police are trained to"disarm" someone. You are right about the need for more services from the mental health centers, they should be funded and widely available.

Leanne H.
Leanne H.2 years ago

I feel that all the anger towards the police is a bit misplaced. This is a perfect example of why we need readily available residential facilities for violent, mentally ill people. This boy had already beaten his mother, "tussled" with his father, threatened himself, his parents, and the police with a knife. A person like that belongs in an inpatient facility, not in a situation where his poor parents have no other recourse but to repeatedly call the police (which obviously was no fix for their terrible situation.)
I don't know why we, as a country, have veered away from long term facilities for people who are a danger to themselves and society. We are left with situations like this - with the police being expected to repeatedly deal with situations well beyond their capacities and communities in danger. Imagine what could have happened, for example, when this boy "fled the house with a knife" - he could have run across someone who "made him mad" and then... the unthinkable...
Before anyone jumps on me for "not understanding" the plight of people with Autism, etc I'll add that my brother is autistic and was removed from the home and placed in residential care at the age of 16 when he started beating my mother. It was a blessing, and we were all relieved that we could live our lives without worrying that he would kill my mom by pushing her down the stairs or something similar. He is very happy today, and working part time in the community. He simply needed the extra

Mindy Snyder
Mindy Snyder2 years ago

I bet those police officers feel terrible that they made such a huge mistake. I had to watch a boy and his sisters once and he had autism. It was an awful experience.

Richard Hancock
Richard Hancock2 years ago

And these people are there to "protect and serve"...

Lin Moy
Lin M3 years ago

Police need to be trained to shoot in the foot or some where it stops people but doesn't kill. These parents messed up not having knifes well locked up and out of sight' to the boy. These people all are at fault here. Police need not be involved anyway.

James W.
James W.3 years ago

Let the parents shoot the cops

gwendolin amato
gwendolin amato3 years ago

WHY AM I UNABLE TO VOTE ON THIS ? I,ve tried several times ??

AnnMarie S.
AnnMarie S.3 years ago

And a word of advise for other parent of children with special needs be active in the community make sure everyone knows about your childs needs and frequent the fire dept and police station.