Unacceptable Police Shooting of Teenager with Autism: The Arc Calls for Transparent Investigation and Reform

Washington, D.C. – Yet another unnecessary police shooting of a person with a disability has occurred, this time in Salt Lake City, Utah, where 13-year-old Linden Cameron was shot by officers multiple times on Friday night while he was in crisis. His mother had called police for assistance when Linden, who has autism, was experiencing behaviors related to his disability likely due to a disruption in his routine. Linden needed an intervention but instead, police responding to the situation shot the teenager multiple times, causing significant injuries.

“How this call for help escalated, and so quickly, into a tragic shooting of a 13-year-old is incomprehensible. A thorough, swift, and transparent investigation must be done for Linden, his family, and the community.

“No one should ever be hurt or killed by police because of who they are. But time and time again, interactions between police and marginalized communities, including people with disabilities, end in violence. According to research, almost half of people killed by police have some kind of disability.  The Arc stands in solidarity with all communities that continue to face over-policing and mourn for those lost to police violence.

“To achieve the full participation of people with disabilities in their communities, we must demand recognition and respect for their human dignity, as well as understanding and acceptance of their differences. Whether the call goes to police, or another crisis intervention team, these are the fundamentals that must be ingrained in our society. We must develop systems that support individuals and families in these situations so that law enforcement is not called in.  We have to change our response – not the person with the disability, or the person in crisis. In the meantime, I fear for millions of people like Linden who simply by being who they are, are at risk of tragic violence when they or a loved one call for help,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.

The Arc is committed to learning from every instance of police violence against marginalized communities in order to advocate effectively for much-needed reform. The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) is key to this effort. NCCJD promotes safety, fairness, and justice for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, especially those with hidden disabilities and marginalized identities, as victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants, and incarcerated persons. Without access to justice, individuals with disabilities will continue to be overrepresented in every part of the criminal legal system. Law enforcement must receive effective training to prepare them for situations involving interactions with people with disabilities. To address this critical issue, NCCJD created Pathways to Justice, a comprehensive, community-based program that improves access to justice by creating and building relationships between the disability and criminal justice communities.

The Arc advocates for and serves people wit­­h intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy, and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 600 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

Editor’s Note: The Arc is not an acronym; always refer to us as The Arc, not The ARC and never ARC. The Arc should be considered as a title or a phrase.

Black and white photograph of justice scales sitting on a desk in a courtroom

The Arc Calls for Georgia Supreme Court to Reexamine Unconstitutional Standard for Proving Intellectual Disability in Death Penalty Cases

WASHINGTON – The Arc of the United States, The Arc Georgia, and The Georgia Advocacy Office filed an amicus brief Monday before the Georgia Supreme Court in the case Palmer v. Georgia. The brief explains that Georgia’s requirement that defendants facing the death penalty must prove their diagnosis of intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” to be exempt from execution creates an unacceptable risk that people with intellectual disability will be executed. Georgia’s burden of proof undermines clinical science and encourages jurors to rely on stereotypes. While the Georgia Supreme Court has previously declined to find Georgia’s standard unconstitutional, more recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court necessitate a different outcome in this case.

“For decades, The Arc has advocated for capital defendants with intellectual disability leading to critical Supreme Court precedent prohibiting their execution. Mr. Palmer and other people with intellectual disability on Georgia’s death row must be afforded their constitutional rights and not be subjected to harmful stereotypes,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc. “Georgia’s ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ burden of proof for establishing intellectual disability in death penalty cases is inconsistent with the clinical process of diagnosing intellectual disability and the risks are deadly.”

“Because of The Arc’s advocacy, Georgia was the first state to prohibit the execution of people with intellectual disability by statute even before the U.S. Supreme Court banned this practice,” said Stacey Ramirez, State Director, The Arc Georgia. “However, Top of Formdespite Georgia’s early leadership on the issue, it is the only state that requires defendants to establish intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt and, since Atkins, not a single defendant in Georgia has been held to be exempt from execution due to intellectual disability. Georgia’s untenable standard violates the Constitution and puts people with intellectual disability at grave risk.”

In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with intellectual disability and banned their execution as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Since the Georgia Supreme Court last reviewed its death penalty statute in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that states cannot ignore clinical science or impose procedures that create an “unacceptable level of risk” that people with ID will be executed. In Hall v. Florida (2014), the Court rejected an arbitrary cutoff for IQ scores in making the intellectual disability determination and emphasized the importance of courts consulting clinical standards in their analysis. The Court’s decisions in Moore v. Texas (2017, 2019) strengthened this precedent by emphasizing the need to rely on well-established clinical standards—rather than stereotypes—in making intellectual disability determinations in death penalty cases. The Arc filed amicus briefs in Atkins, Hall, and Moore to educate the court on the clinical diagnosis of intellectual disability and ensure that the important precedent set in Atkins continues to be strengthened and upheld in jurisdictions around the country.

Coalition Demands Governor Northam Grant a Full Pardon of Neli Latson, a Young Black Man With Disabilities Subjected to a Decade of Injustice

WASHINGTON – Neli Latson should be a free man. Instead, he’s faced a decade of unjust prosecution and abuse in a criminal justice system where, as a young Black man with disabilities, he’s experienced the disastrous combination of systemic racism and ableism. As the nation faces a critical turning point in the fight against systemic racism and racial injustice — including the compounding injustices facing Black people with disabilities — it is time to #FreeNeli.

In a new letter to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a coalition of nearly 50 advocacy groups and legislators led by The Arc of the United States, The Arc of Virginia, the Center for Public Representation, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network are calling on the Governor to right this wrong by immediately granting Mr. Latson a full pardon, committing to continue funding his disability services in Florida where he and his family now reside, and issue a public apology to Mr. Latson and his family.

In 2010, Mr. Latson was an 18-year-old special education student, sitting outside of a library in Stafford County, Virginia, waiting for it to open. Someone called the police reporting a “suspicious” Black male, possibly with a gun. Mr. Latson had committed no crime and was not armed. The resulting confrontation with a deputy was the beginning of years of horrific abuse in the criminal justice system. The prosecutors refused to consider Mr. Latson’s disabilities and rejected an offer of disability services as an alternative to incarceration. Instead, he was punished in the criminal justice system with long periods of solitary confinement, Taser shocks, and the use of a full-body restraint chair for hours on end for behaviors related to his disabilities.  At one point, Mr. Latson was even locked up in a small jail cell with no sink or toilet for days.

Virginia and national disability advocates urged then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant a pardon to Mr. Latson.  In 2015, Governor McAuliffe granted him a conditional pardon, requiring him to live in a restrictive residential setting and be subjected to on-going supervision by the criminal justice system. The terms of his 2015 conditional pardon mean that he could be sent back to jail at any time, causing Mr. Latson to experience constant anxiety.

“The time for Virginia to rectify its egregious wrongs in the case of Neli Latson is long past due and must happen now. Mr. Latson has suffered his entire adult life and received discriminatory and cruel treatment in the criminal justice system – because of behaviors connected to his disabilities and the color of his skin. Governor Northam, please issue a full pardon immediately,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.

“Mr. Latson’s life was stolen from him when he was barely an adult.  He must now receive the justice he deserves following a decade of mistreatment, with his young adult life lost to pain and anguish.  A full pardon and continued support services are the only ways to correct the wrong done to him,” said Tonya Milling, Executive Director of The Arc of Virginia.

“Mr. Latson’s case is a tragic example of how disability is too often criminalized, especially for Black people with disabilities,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy at the Center for Public Representation.  “Virginia must begin to address the systemic racism and ableism in its criminal justice system.  We call on Governor Northam to take an important first step by granting a full pardon to Mr. Latson.”

“Despite years of advocacy, Neli’s freedom is still unnecessarily curtailed by his placement in a restrictive residential setting and ongoing supervision by the criminal system,” said Samantha Crane, Legal Director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “He lacks the freedom to choose his daily activities, find a job, and pursue relationships on his own terms. It’s time for Virginia to provide Neli the supports he needs to live a more self-directed life integrated into the community where he now lives.”

Advocates have fought tirelessly for justice for Mr. Latson for nearly a decade and will keep fighting until we #FreeNeli.

Black and white photograph of justice scales sitting on a desk in a courtroom

The Arc Demands Full Pardon for Neli Latson, a Young Black Man With Autism, to Rectify Injustice

WASHINGTON – As our country faces a critical reckoning of the systemic racism and racial injustice that have plagued our society and systems for generations, The Arc is seeking long overdue legal and moral justice for a young Black man with disabilities who has suffered irreparable harm.

Today, we call on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to #FreeNeli and immediately grant Reginald “Neli” Latson a full pardon. Latson is Black and has autism and intellectual disability, identities which have led to his continued persecution in the criminal justice system.

“At this critical turning point in history, we believe the Commonwealth of Virginia must do more to hold itself morally responsible and accountable in the case of Neli Latson and the continuing injustice of his prosecution and horrifying mistreatment in the criminal justice system. We urge Governor Northam to issue Mr. Latson a full pardon and an apology on behalf of the Commonwealth,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.

Sadly, Latson’s case represents the discrimination people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) experience in the criminal justice system and how that discrimination is compounded for Black people with I/DD. Latson’s nightmare began in 2010 when someone called police reporting a “suspicious” Black male possibly with a gun outside of a public library in Stafford County, Virginia, outside of Washington. Latson, at the time an 18-year-old special education student who had committed no crime and was not carrying a gun or weapon, was just waiting for the library to open. Latson was confronted by a Stafford County deputy, who quickly found that he was unarmed. Latson tried to walk away but was grabbed by the deputy several times. Latson reacted with a fight-or-flight response, a response even more common for people with autism, and in the resulting altercation, both Latson and the Deputy were hurt. Latson was later convicted of assaulting the deputy, setting in motion the next troubling decade of his young life.

While behind bars in Virginia, Latson was subjected to mistreatment and abuse for behaviors connected to his disability, including long periods of solitary confinement, Taser shocks, and the use of a full-body restraint chair for hours on end. Latson was granted a conditional pardon by then Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2015. It allowed him to move from prison to less restrictive facilities, but the conditions of that pardon, in effect until 2025, mean that Latson remains under supervision by criminal justice authorities and experiences the constant threat of reincarceration. Any misinterpreted behavior by Latson, who also now lives with mental health disabilities due to his traumatic experiences with law enforcement and correctional officers, could send the 28-year-old back to prison, resetting the cruel cycle.

It’s estimated that one third to half of all people in the U.S. killed by police have a disability – the majority of these are people of color.

As today’s national conversation intensifies over the clear need for criminal justice reform and an end to the murders of Black people at the hands of police, Neli Latson recently wrote to The Washington Post: “I hope there will finally be change and there will be equality for black people.” He also shared: “I understand how fortunate I am to be alive.”

Governor Northam has an opportunity to remove a major obstacle from Neli Latson’s path to healing. The Arc and The Arc of Virginia, alongside Latson’s attorneys, have been fighting for justice for Latson since 2011 and will not stop until he is free.

“Mr. Latson is a human being. He was criminalized for the color of his skin and his disability. He deserves justice. Governor Northam, #FreeNeli now,” said Berns.

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The Arc: The Ongoing Violence Against Black and Brown Communities in Our Country Is Unacceptable

The Arc released the following statement on the need for swift and substantial action in our society and from our nation’s leaders to dismantle racism, end discrimination, and to honor, protect, and enforce the civil and human rights of all people.

“The ongoing violence and police brutality against Black and Brown people in our country is unacceptable. We stand in solidarity with every person and community that is appalled by the homicide of George Floyd, and so many others before him. We stand in solidarity too with those who are taking action against the systemic racism that underlies this behavior. Racist attitudes and behavior should have no place in America.

“Tragically, the historical and everyday reality is that the lives and humanity of people of color, and members of other marginalized communities, are too often not valued and respected. The Arc renews its own commitment to social justice and the dismantling of the systems of oppression and discrimination that further this violence and neglect.

“We all must step up and speak out, including our nation’s leaders, to uphold the rights of communities of color to be free from over policing, police brutality, misconduct, harassment, and racism. To be silent is to be complicit,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.  

two men, a patient and a doctor, seated and talking

Let’s Talk About Sexual Violence Against Men With Disabilities

Men with disabilities are twice as likely as those without disabilities to experience sexual violence. Yet few people know just how common it is, including health care professionals.

The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability® and the Board Resource Center recognize that health care professionals are in a front line position to educate patients with disabilities about sexual violence and how to report it. The project is releasing new training videos and other valuable online resources to give doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals the practical tools they need to have simple, direct, and honest conversations about sexual violence with male patients who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Health care professionals generally have little or no experience talking about sexual violence with this population. And men with intellectual and developmental disabilities may not know if they are victims of sexual violence, how to talk about it to their doctor, how to report it to authorities, or how to access healing services like counseling.

Talk About Sexual Violence provides tools that build the capacity of health care professionals to talk about this issue with greater confidence and lays the groundwork needed to empower patients with disabilities to talk openly about sexual violence, decreasing the likelihood of future violence.

As part of the second phase of the Talk About Sexual Violence project, The Arc and the Board Resource Center are proud to present:

“Survivors need to talk things out. We need a safe place to tell things and be heard. Listen to us, hear us, believe us. Let us talk about it as long as we need to. Let us be brave with you. We are getting out the pain, one conversation at a time.” – James Meadours, National Peer Advocate & Survivor

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The Arc Applauds Commutation of Bobby Moore Death Sentence

The Arc applauds the new ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) that Bobby Moore is a person with intellectual disability and cannot be executed; commuting his sentence to life in prison.

In its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with intellectual disability and banned their execution as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Subsequently, in Hall v. Florida (2014), the Court rejected an arbitrary cutoff for IQ scores in making the intellectual disability determination and emphasized the importance of courts consulting clinical standards in their analysis. The Court’s 2017 and 2019 decisions in Moore v. Texas have strengthened this precedent by emphasizing the need to rely on well-established clinical standards – rather than stereotypes – in making intellectual disability determinations in death penalty cases. The Arc filed amicus briefs on Mr. Moore’s behalf when he first went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 and again when his case was remanded to the TCCA in 2017.

“The appeals court decision is a major victory for people with intellectual disability in the criminal justice system and it finally affirms what The Arc and our allies have long asserted: Bobby Moore met the criteria for intellectual disability and his death sentence violated his Constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc. “We hope the Moore case serves as a loud and clear reminder to the court system that the Supreme Court banned the execution of people with intellectual disability 17 years ago, recognizing their risk of wrongful execution. It is a risk we cannot – and will not take.”

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The Arc Demands Charges Against Officer in Costco Shooting

The Arc is outraged by the decision not to file criminal charges against the Los Angeles police officer who shot and killed Kenneth French, a man reported to have had intellectual disability, at a California Costco store in June. Kenneth was nonverbal and also lived with mental health issues, according to his family.

While Officer Salvador Sanchez was holding his child, he was pushed or hit by Kenneth — who was unarmed. Sanchez used excessive force and recklessly ended the young man’s life, despite reported warnings and pleas by Kenneth’s family explaining that he had intellectual disability. Sanchez fired 10 shots, also critically wounding Kenneth’s parents.

“Officer Sanchez should face criminal charges. Based on the evidence made public, we are outraged by the grand jury’s recommendation. We are infuriated that Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin also declined to file charges. Both decisions raise serious concerns for the disability community and all communities disproportionately impacted by unwarranted police violence, a problem that has plagued our country far too long.

“The criminal justice system has failed the French family. At a minimum, charges should be filed and a full trial held. Let a judge or jury decide whether a crime has been committed after all the evidence is presented.

“Kenneth French and other people with disabilities have the right to be in the community, shopping with their family or doing any other ordinary activity, without a police officer shooting and killing them. Kenneth’s death is a senseless tragedy that magnifies the troubling divide between law enforcement and all people they are sworn to protect and serve,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.

The Arc makes it a priority to build strong, respectful relationships between the disability community, the criminal justice system, and law enforcement personnel across the country. Our National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) trains attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers, and victim advocates nationwide through Pathways to Justice. We educate them on issues facing the disability community and how to safely and effectively interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who are at least two times more likely to become victims of violent crimes.

“There is an urgent need for officer training, intentional relationship-building with people with disabilities and agencies that serve them, and the use of de-escalation techniques. The Arc will continue to follow the case closely, as LAPD investigates and Kenneth’s family pursues legal action,” said Berns.

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Talk About Sexual Violence: James’ Story

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual assault and violence disproportionately affect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), with findings from NPR revealing that people with I/DD are assaulted at seven times the rate of people without disabilities. The first step to tackling this epidemic is talking about it.

Read more from one survivor:

James Meadours smiles at the camera in a selfie, wearing a navy blue polo shirt and glasses.

I never thought lightning could strike twice in the same place, but in my life it happened. I was sexually assaulted four times during my life and this is not uncommon for men or women with disabilities. I want to share the last time it happened to me.

I was looking for a Church that welcomed people including those with disabilities. A friend encouraged me to join him for a Church service and when I was there I met a member who was deaf and wanted to teach me sign language. I thought we were becoming friends. One time we spoke on the phone and he asked if I was gay, I told him I was not. We got together the day before Church at my home and he began to be sexual with me. Even knowing I was not gay, he still approached me. Again, I told him I was not interested and let him know by shaking my head “NO” and backed away. I used sign language to say NO but he signed YES.

The next day when I went to Church I didn’t tell anyone. I felt ashamed and afraid if I told anyone I could be hurt. I reached out to the pastor and nothing was done and out of frustration I told my friend and he called 211 to make a report on my behalf with my permission.

I went to the hospital to make sure I was OK. People listened and took the time to help me. The SANE Nurse (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) was gentle and understanding. I wanted to make a formal report to law enforcement and hoped the officer would be kind and help me feel at ease. Later in the week an officer made a home visit and gathered evidence. The kindness the officer showed me is not typical.

I pressed charges and went to court. He went to jail.

My friends believed me and were helpful at different stages, but when I approached the local rape crisis center two weeks later they didn’t know how to provide support since they do not usually help many men, especially men with disabilities. It was a new experience for them, but despite them not having training, they tried to be helpful.

No one taught me the steps to recovery. I did remember what the SANE nurse told me – she looked me in the eye and said I needed to take care of myself before helping others who have suffered. After two years of recovery work, I realized when I was at a meeting to discuss sexual assault that I wanted to tell my story. This was the beginning of my journey to become an advocate to support others with disabilities who have suffered with sexual assault. I am now a national advocate and speaker at many conferences sharing my story and recommending changes so others can find healing and if they want they can become part of the MeToo movement.

As Sexual Assault Awareness Month draws to a close, join us in the movement to Talk About Sexual Violence! And, sign up for our criminal justice emails to receive resources, timely news, and ideas on how to advocate and get involved throughout the year.

Our Call to Action

Recommendations for Schools and Students

  1. Provide age-appropriate sex education for students with disabilities.
  2. Discuss safe vs. unsafe relationships.
  3. Identify who to report a sexual assault incident to.
  4. Ensure a personal safety plan is included in Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

Recommendations for Individuals

  1. Reach out to a trusted person if you have experienced sexual assault.
  2. Learn about your rights as a crime victim and what can happen if you report.
  3. Locate and attend sexual assault support groups.
  4. If you are interviewed by law enforcement, request privacy.
  5. Know your rights about your accommodation needs.

Recommendations for Disability Service Providers

  1. Require sexual trauma training for providers.
  2. Demand deeper background checks for all employees.
  3. Listen and believe when someone discloses sexual assault.
  4. Provide accommodations when a person reports an incident.
  5. Ensure privacy when a person reports sexual violence.

Recommendations for Criminal Justice Professionals

  1. Required training for first responders, law enforcement, the courts, and sexual assault and rape crisis professionals about serving crime victims with I/DD.
  2. Learn effective strategies for interviewing crime victims with disabilities.
  3. Use disability specific accommodations.
  4. Consider community outreach to reduce fear of talking with law enforcement.
The Arc logo

Talk About Sexual Violence: Kecia

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual assault and violence disproportionately affect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), with findings from NPR revealing that people with I/DD are assaulted at seven times the rate of people without disabilities. The first step to tackling this epidemic is talking about it.

Read more from one survivor:

Kecia Weller poses for a photo against a gray mottled background with a blue shirt on.

“Get involved. Help people with disabilities learn about safe relationships and prevention of sexual assault. Special attention must be provided at peer advocacy meetings to teach people how to support survivors when they report the abuse and create their own safety plans. There are many ways people with disabilities can be supportive. A few ideas include volunteering to be a listener on a hot line, educating school teachers about the frequency of abuse against students with disabilities and most important, learning more yourself about the alarming rate of sexual and other kinds of assault happening to men and women with disabilities.”

Read more of Kecia’s story.

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, join us in the movement to Talk About Sexual Violence! And, sign up for our criminal justice emails to receive resources, timely news, and ideas on how to advocate and get involved throughout the year.

Our Call to Action

Recommendations for Schools and Students

  1. Provide age-appropriate sex education for students with disabilities.
  2. Discuss safe vs. unsafe relationships.
  3. Identify who to report a sexual assault incident to.
  4. Ensure a personal safety plan is included in Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

Recommendations for Individuals

  1. Reach out to a trusted person if you have experienced sexual assault.
  2. Learn about your rights as a crime victim and what can happen if you report.
  3. Locate and attend sexual assault support groups.
  4. If you are interviewed by law enforcement, request privacy.
  5. Know your rights about your accommodation needs.

Recommendations for Disability Service Providers

  1. Require sexual trauma training for providers.
  2. Demand deeper background checks for all employees.
  3. Listen and believe when someone discloses sexual assault.
  4. Provide accommodations when a person reports an incident.
  5. Ensure privacy when a person reports sexual violence.

Recommendations for Criminal Justice Professionals

  1. Required training for first responders, law enforcement, the courts, and sexual assault and rape crisis professionals about serving crime victims with I/DD.
  2. Learn effective strategies for interviewing crime victims with disabilities.
  3. Use disability specific accommodations.
  4. Consider community outreach to reduce fear of talking with law enforcement.