Special needs people armed with weapons might be one of the most agonizing calls a police officer will handle. The normal rules of engagement are on hold while trying to disarm people with a diminished awareness of their actions.

There was a business near my police department that employed moderately disabled adults, so we became accustomed to solving problems that originated from them.

In most circumstances, our primary concern was for the safety of the special needs adult, since it was readily apparent they did not present a danger to others nearby.

But handling a special needs person who refuses to drop a butcher knife is another matter.

Heads up dispatcher

A sharp dispatcher brought to my attention a call for service that had “tragic ending” written all over it. Just before sending officers, she called and said, “Lt, the R/P (reporting party) wants us to help him get his uncooperative son to take his medication for asperger’s. But here’s the kicker. Dad says his son is armed with a butcher’s knife, although he says he is not a danger to anyone.”

Asperger syndrome is one of several previously separate subtypes of autism (see more). While I am not an expert on aspergers or autism, I know all too well how officers respond to uncooperative individuals armed with knives. And I knew I did not want our officers potentially using lethal force on a special needs adult because he refused to take his medication. Furthermore, to exacerbate the problem, the 18-year-old special needs young man stood at 6’ 6” and tipped the scale at about 280 lbs.

Ordinarily he was “supposedly” a gentle-giant, but at the time this very large special needs man was armed with a butcher’s knife, and he didn’t want to take his medication. Should we gamble that he’d be gentle?

My mind quickly raced to the worst case scenario as I projected the news headline, “Police Kill Disabled Teen Over Medication Misunderstanding.”

Speaking to Dad

I instructed the dispatcher to place the officers on stand-by while I called the father. It took about ten minutes to cut through manipulation by the man, but I finally concluded the gentle-giant-son was not threatening family members with the knife. He was sitting alone in his upstairs bedroom, and would in all likelihood, fall asleep if left alone. He frequently grabbed a butcher knife when he did not want to take his medication.

I quickly educated the desperate father regarding options used by police officers when dealing with uncooperative individuals armed with knives; to include, baton, pepper spray, Taser, or worse yet, lethal force.

Naturally, officer training would take into account greater closing distances for safety as well as added verbal options trying to seek a peaceful remedy. But if the father couldn’t get his physically imposing special needs son to peacefully cooperate, I did not have confidence that our officers would either. And I knew our cops would not lose the battle leading to a potentially tragic tale.

Special needs man refusing medication and armed with a knife

What should I do?

Right, wrong, or indifferent, I told the father that I would not send officers into this potentially no-win scenario. I based my decision on three key factors:

  • I was convinced the special needs son was not a danger to his family.
  • According to Dad, the young man would eventually fall asleep. Furthermore, failing to take medication would not threaten his welfare.
  • The incident played out in their home. The public at large was not at risk.

The father was not happy with my decision. Once I concluded my conversation with him, the same alert dispatcher notified me that we had sent officers to their house twice in previous months. On each occasion our officers used physical force to help the father get his unarmed son onto an ambulance gurney for transport to a medical facility.

This reinforced my decision, but what if I was wrong? How would I justify “refusing service regarding an armed individual” if the son knifed his family members?

It weighed heavy on my mind. In fact I was so concerned that I personally drove to the neighborhood and sat quietly in a blacked out patrol car down the street. Late at night, I exited my unit and walked in the shadows of the home listening for sounds of violence. After an hour, there were none.

I called the father who confirmed his son fell asleep. As follow-up, we referred him to county resources to help eliminate the problem. Yet that didn’t stop him from calling about a week later with the same request. Once again, he was pretty upset that I would not send officers to help. But the night ended peacefully when the butcher knife slipped from his loosed grip as he fell asleep.

Judgment based upon specific circumstances

I’m not about to tell other cops and agencies how to handle similar circumstances. There were pros and cons to my decision. Situational awareness with similar calls for service is a necessity. Decisions need to be made based upon specific circumstances at hand. All I knew was this very large young man became a fighter when he didn’t want to take medication, and adding uniformed officers inflamed circumstances based upon our history with him. Placing a butcher knife in his hands completely changed the scenario, and I saw it as a no win for everyone.

Moreover, there were incidental actions taken, which ultimately led to department wide protocols when handling this type of call for service.

Each situation is different, and decisions should be made in consultation with on site experts if feasible. Law enforcement officers are tasked with handling many challenging circumstances, and special needs people armed with a weapon is one of them.

Jim McNeff, editor-in-chief, Law Enforcement Today