Cranston couple, whose 24-year-old autistic son was wrestled into handcuffs after an outburst on Newport’s Pell Bridge, are pushing for the mandated training.
By Lynn Arditi
The parents of a 24-year-old with severe autism are pressing state lawmakers to mandate training for police in dealing with people who have developmental disabilities or mental illnesses.
Maren McBride-Beaudoin and her husband, Wilfred Beaudoin, say legislation introduced into the General Assembly could help prevent dangerous confrontations such as the one police had with their son, André, last October. The young man had an emotional outburst in the back of his group home’s van while riding on the Pell Bridge. Police wrestled him into handcuffs and took him in a police car to the hospital.
Police maintain that they responded appropriately to the situation.
Nationwide, police have come under increasing scrutiny for their treatment of the mentally ill. On March 9, a police officer responding to reports of a suspicious person outside an Atlanta-area apartment complex fatally shot a 27-year-old Air Force veteran who was naked and unarmed.
A recent joint report from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association estimated that at least half of the people shot and killed in the United States by police each year have mental-health problems. The estimate was based on data gathered between 1980 and 2008.
In Rhode Island, the Town of West Warwick in 2012 agreed to pay $1 million to the family of a mentally ill man who died in police custody after a confrontation with officers in June 2008. The wrongful-death lawsuit followed a ruling by a grand jury in 2009 that cleared the police officers of wrongdoing. “Too often, police may mistake an individual with a developmental disability as someone who is being aggressive, violent or perhaps even someone under the influence of some substance,’’ state Rep. John J. Lombardi said during a House committee hearing on the legislation he introduced to make training mandatory. “And an aggressive police response … is absolutely the wrong kind.’’
The confrontation with André Beaudoin began shortly before noon on Oct. 23, 2014, while he was being driven by a staffer from Bridges Inc. to a cooking class at his new group home. The activity, his parents say, was designed to get André accustomed to the new environment.
The events on the Pell Bridge are detailed in an investigative report from the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH), police reports and interviews with André’s parents.
As the van neared the bridge, the driver noticed that André looked upset. His face was red and he held his head in his hands.
What’s wrong? he asked André. We’re going to cooking class!
Andre smiled and the two fist-bumped.
But when they had crossed the bridge into Jamestown, André again became red-faced and held his head.
If you don’t want to go to cooking class, the driver said, we won’t go.
André perked up and smiled at the driver. So the driver turned the van around.
The van was about halfway over the bridge when André threw his hat at the driver, followed by his bag. André then removed his seat belt and lunged at him.
The driver slowed to a stop and turned on his flashers.
The driver was trying to get André’s helmet on to prevent him from biting when a Navy police officer, seeing the van stopped with its flashers on, pulled over and called 911.
Within minutes, five police officers arrived.
Nationwide, some 3,000 police departments in the country provide “crisis intervention training’’ for officers to defuse potentially confrontational situations involving people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, said Michael S. Woody, president of the private nonprofit CIT International.
The method, developed in Memphis, Tenn., involves selecting officers who have good communication skills and “high emotional IQ,” he said, and providing them with advanced training in de-escalation techniques. Those officers then become the point people who respond to calls for assistance with people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.
In Rhode Island, police officers receive eight hours of training in “mental health first aid” when they go through the police academy, said Brian W. Sullivan, vice president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association. Beyond that, he said, training varies by department.
Sullivan, who also is chief of police in Lincoln, said the association welcomes additional training but opposes any mandates that require such training without compensating departments for paying officers overtime or filling their shifts if they are given time off from work.
Better training for Rhode Island police, the Beaudoins say, could have prevented the confrontation that day with their son on the Pell Bridge.
“Everything that happened after that,’’ McBride-Beaudoin said, “escalated the situation.”
The Navy officer, she said, shouted at André, saying, “Calm down, young man!”
André is non-verbal and has “spacial issues,’’ his mother said, which make it difficult for him to tolerate close physical contact.
One officer suggested using a Taser but the driver protested.
The driver called his supervisor, who offered to meet the driver and André on the other side of the bridge.
But an officer objected. “I know your protocol; we need to follow ours.’’
After what was described in the state’s report as a “brief struggle” involving several officers, André was handcuffed, placed in the back of a patrol car and transported to Newport Hospital.
Looking back on the events on the bridge that morning, Jamestown Police Chief Edward A. Mello says that his three officers acted appropriately given the situation they found when they arrived. “The unfortunate reality is that [de-escalation techniques] probably should have been applied before it reached this level of physical confrontation,” Mello said. “It was clear to them at that point that the de-escalation process, if it did occur, was not effective.”
One recent Saturday evening, the Beaudoins gathered at the dinner table of their Cranston home for their weekly dinner with André.
Tall and lanky, André hunched over a bowl of Chinese noodle and beef soup, a curled hand awkwardly gripping a spoon handle. Then he banged the heels of his hands together and grunted “ma,’’ his word for more.
“The way to treat a person like André when he becomes aggressive is to give him space and let him calm down on his own,’’ his father said. “If you put hands on him, his past trauma kicks in and he becomes more aggressive.”
His mother, a retired teacher of children with special needs, says the Bridges staff who saw André that day told her they’d “never seen him that worked up before.”
His father, a music teacher and member of the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, said police need to work with health professionals to learn better ways to handle people like his son.
“It didn’t have to go the way it did,” he said.