Police, people with special needs, and connection

IDF officers must decide if a person is harmless or a terrorist in a second and they are not familiar with special needs behavior. Op-ed.

Rabbi Chaim Perkal ,

Israeli Border Police in the Old City of Jerusalem
Israeli Border Police in the Old City of Jerusalem
Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Last week, a young man with special needs, Iyad Al-Halaq, was shot and killed by security forces in Jerusalem after he seemed to be holding a gun, did not heed police orders to halt and ran instead. Since the incident, Israeli media has focused on issues like racial profiling of Arabs and the presumption of guilt. Some have even tried to link the event to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, adding fuel to the fire and possibly causing further violence.

However, there’s a critical part of the story missing from public discourse - namely, that most Israeli police officers are unfamiliar with people who have intellectual disabilities and are unable to distinguish between the behavior of someone with autism and the behavior of a person who’s criminally motivated.

While the shooting of this young man is undoubtedly tragic, decades of terrorism and tensions within Jerusalem created the perfect storm for this situation to occur. There are reports that terror groups sometimes use special needs persons to throw rocks or goad IDF personnel, knowing that the photo-ops will make Israel look bad.

Because I don’t anticipate that we’ll see peace soon enough for the need for high security in Jerusalem to lessen, it’s critical that we embrace solutions to try to prevent a tragedy such as last week's from occurring again in the future.

If we support social programs in which people with intellectual disabilities visit police stations - even for something as quick as a twenty minute “cookies and juice” break - I believe this will make a tremendous difference.

We don’t need officers to sit through hours of lectures about people with special needs. Our police will benefit the most with face-to-face interactions, so that they gain some familiarity with the mannerisms, speech patterns, and body movements of people with intellectual disabilities.

An officer serving in Jerusalem must decide if a person is a harmless bystander or a terrorist in the blink of an eye. Relying on a mix of training, instinct, and adrenaline, an officer must choose their course of action faster than you or I check for oncoming traffic before crossing the street.

Perhaps if the officers involved in Al-Halaq’s shooting had spent some time with people who have autism, they may have understood more quickly that his unusual behavior stemmed from an intellectual disability.

Another simple but important solution is making sure police know the area they’re patrolling. When an officer is stationed in a particular neighborhood, their superior should inform them about any special education centers within walking distance.

If the officers know there’s a possibility they may come across people with special needs during their shift, especially if they know what routes or streets that they are likely to use, this may mean an officer is less likely to have a fear-based reaction when someone is behaving outside of the norm.

To prevent another tragic police shooting of someone with special needs who is not involved, wittingly or unwittingly, in terror, we must raise awareness and create the possibility in an officer’s mind that he may encounter someone with special needs during security patrols.

I’m certain that the officers who stopped Al-Halaq, through no fault of their own, did not consider that he was uncooperative because he had autism. It’s just simply not a scenario that they’d been trained to keep in mind.

Demonizing the police will not fix the situation or bring back Al-Halaq. The reality is that police officers, especially those in Jerusalem, are putting their lives on the line every day. They are also human beings, who despite trying their best, sometimes make mistakes. And sometimes not reacting puts them in mortal danger.

Still, police officers and people with special needs are both fundamental parts of our community. We need to grow the relationship between officers and people who are not neurotypical. The key to a safer world for all of us is connection.

Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the Director and Founder of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.







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