KSL Investigates Critical Training Gaps Leaving Utahns On Autism Spectrum At Risk

Feb 8, 2021, 10:35 PM | Updated: 11:39 pm

WOODS CROSS, Utah — As anyone with a loved one on the autism spectrum will tell you, it is difficult to predict how they will respond to a stranger. When that stranger is a law enforcement officer, the concern an interaction can go badly is even greater.

As a result, many police departments across the country are requiring additional training for officers on how best to respond to those on the spectrum. That’s not the case in Utah.

Utah law enforcement officers have access to specialized Crisis Intervention Team training to learn how to help people with mental illness who are experiencing crisis, although few departments require it. While that training also applies to autism, a previous KSL Investigation found only 51% of officers in the five largest counties have ever received CIT training, leaving a vulnerable population at risk.

RELATED: Critical Gaps In Law Enforcement Training Leave Utahns With Mental Illness At Risk

After an encounter between police and her teenage son, a Utah mother reached out to the KSL Investigators concerned by what she sees as critical response gaps in officer training.

Police & Autism: Remick’s Story

“He’s just the most special kid,” Utahna Archuleta said about her son, Remick Trimble. “He’s got the biggest heart of probably anybody I’ve ever known, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my child.”

Trimble has always been a bright, curious boy who loves animals and the outdoors. The teenager has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and attends Spectrum Academy in North Salt Lake.

As a result of her son’s diagnosis, Archuleta said when Trimble gets agitated, his behavior can be unpredictable.

“It’s fight or flight. Run away or fight for your life, and that’s just how they’re wired,” Archuleta said.

She said that instinct kicked in on Nov. 11, 2019.

Officers with the Woods Cross Police Department encountered Trimble at the Utah Transit Authority FrontRunner station after he got into a fight with some of his classmates on the platform.

Officers’ body cameras captured what happened.

Although autism is an invisible disability, after watching the video, Archuleta said there were clues officers missed from the moment they arrived on scene.

A frightened Trimble, who was 16 at the time, can be heard pleading, “Can I call my mom, please?”

“Yes, we’re gonna call your mom, but you need to calm down, OK?” one of the three officers responded.

The childlike plea, his mother said, should have been a sign to police officers that her son was not a typical teenager.

“I’m hyperventilating. There goes my train!” Trimble screamed as officers took him to the ground.

“His only thought was that he missed the train,” Archuleta explained, regarding the boy’s heightened reaction in the video. “He was so scared he missed the train because that was a big responsibility, for him to make sure he got on the train and didn’t miss it.”

Riding the FrontRunner to meet his mother after work was a test in independence for Trimble.

As the train departed southbound with Trimble still on the ground, the incident became more intense.

“My phone,” Trimble yelled.

“We’ll get it. Calm down,” an officer replied.

“No,” Trimble cried, as he headbutted an officer.

“Calm down!”

“I need to call my mom!” Trimble yelled, concerned about letting his mother know he won’t be there to meet her.

Although Trimble tried repeatedly to tell officers what started the fight on the platform, Archuleta said they did not appear interested in having that conversation.

According to the police report, when officers stopped Trimble from getting on the train, he became violent, kicking an officer in the leg, stomping on his foot and injuring the officer’s thumb, “causing it to bleed.”

Archuleta said the officers were just as aggressive with her son.

“They manhandled him. They were rough with him,” Archuleta said. “They could have broken his neck. They could have broken his shoulder. They could have broken his wrist the way they suspended him.”

Remick Trimble’s face after the incident at the FrontRunner station. (Utahna Archuleta)

Trimble’s reaction, Archuleta said, was the direct result of how police handled the situation.

“He doesn’t respond appropriately when somebody comes at him or does something — which a lot of kids on the spectrum are like that. He doesn’t like to be touched. He doesn’t like to be hugged,” she explained. “I get it. The police don’t know what’s going on when they roll up to situations, but it definitely could have had been handled differently had they had more training.”

Woods Cross Police Chief Chad Soffe said things could have been handled differently in Trimble’s case. But he believes where the incident took place played a role in the officers’ decisions that day.

“[Remick] was being confrontational on the platform to the FrontRunner train. So, we don’t want him jumping down onto the tracks,” explained Soffe. “I don’t know that they could’ve handled that any other way.”

Experience likely also played a role, Soffe said.

One of the responding officers was brand new and just hired. Another officer had been with the department for three years, and the third officer had been working there for 18 months.

While 11 of the 18 officers employed by Woods Cross (61%) have currently received CIT training, the KSL Investigators found none of the three officers who interacted with Trimble had been through the CIT program.

Archuleta contacted the KSL Investigators with her story after another encounter between Utah police and a teenager with Autism made national headlines.

RELATED: SLCPD Body Camera Video Released In Shooting Of 13-Year-Old With Autism

In September 2020, Salt Lake City police shot 13-year-old Linden Cameron multiple times after his mother called 911 saying her son was in crisis. Cameron was critically injured.

“That could have been my son,” Archuleta said.

All of the officers on the Salt Lake City call had been through CIT and the result was still nearly fatal, suggesting a few hours of specialized training may not be enough.

Specialized Training Options In Utah

CIT training is a 40-hour training course outside the police academy that teaches officers how to respond to those experiencing crisis and mental illness. Autism is only a small focus.

One Utah lawmaker wants to take things a step further.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is introducing a bill that would require disability training similar to CIT for all new police officers.

“It’s hard to train ‘too much’ when lives are at stake,” said Eliason. “[Officers] just need to know, I’m dealing with a special person here that needs to be handled special.”

The need for this additional training is becoming more apparent, as statistics show Utah is above the national average for people who have autism spectrum disorder.

Eliason also believes making resources, such as Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams and receiving centers available to officers helps them do their job more effectively. He said this keeps an individual’s involvement with law enforcement shorter in duration and more clinically focused.

“They [police officers] oftentimes don’t have sufficient training to help in that situation and simply putting them to jail, often just exacerbates that person’s situation,” Eliason said last year. “They’re not well addressed by incarcerating that individual or just putting them in handcuffs.”

Eliason’s bill is not the only one that takes on CIT. Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, is also introducing a bill this session that would organize a committee to take a closer look at the issue.

Archuleta believes Eliason’s bill could make all the difference.

“They need to go and spend time with these kids and see what they’re like,” she said.

Although Archuleta understands things could have been so much worse for Trimble, she won’t downplay the damage already done.

“What they did was they broke his spirit. He has not been the same since it happened,” she added.

Training Roadblocks

Agencies the KSL Investigators spoke with said CIT training can’t always be their top priority.

Although Soffe said he would personally support legislation that would require every Utah law enforcement officer to be CIT-trained, he said it’s a funding issue.

“If you have to decide whether to send an officer for a week to CIT training, or send them to an investigative school for say, homicide, or for some other investigative tool, you have to make that decision. And if you only have a limited amount of funds, then sometimes CIT training is put on the back burner, unfortunately,” Soffe explained.

Utah’s POST Academy does require every police officer in the state to have 16 hours of mental health training as part of their required curriculum before they graduate. That’s something the academy pays for, not the state, meaning officers who don’t get formal CIT training are relying on just two workdays of instruction.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Visit KSLInvestigates.com to submit your tip, so we can get working for you. You Ask. KSL Investigates. 

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KSL Investigates Critical Training Gaps Leaving Utahns On Autism Spectrum At Risk