Monday, April 4, 2022

#SurvivingPolicing: People of the State of California v. Isaias Cervantes, Case No. BA499677

Image of Disability Voices United Poster Calling
For a Justice for Isaias Cervantes protest on January
During #AutismAcceptanceMonth, I want to highlight what happens during and after autistic children, teens, and adults experience catastrophic encounters with law enforcement. I'm hoping that spotlighting what goes wrong will guide all of us to work for better public policies that save autistic lives and end these encounters altogether.

Let's start by discussing The People of the State of California v. Isaias Cervantes, Case No. BA499677.

On March 31, 2021, Isaias, autistic and Deaf, was in a state of meltdown at his home when his sister called 911 for mental health support.  Mr. Cervantes' therapist and the family were present at these events, waited outside, and explained to the responding police officers that he was calm, nonviolent, and simply needed to be taken to the hospital. The rest of the story, per LAist is as follows:

In March of 2021, Cervantes was shot and paralyzed by an L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy who was responding to an emergency call from the family.

Deputies say Cervantes reached for one of their guns, but body-cam video released by the department doesn’t clearly show that.

More than six months later, the district attorney’s office charged Cervantes with assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer.

More than a dozen advocacy groups — including the Autism Society of L.A. — were shocked by the move and sent a letter to DA George Gascón’s office.

 Isaias is paralyzed from the bullet that damaged his spine and one of his lungs. The unusual thing about Isaias' encounter is that he survived it. So many others (Steven Eugene Washington, Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, Stephon Watts, Ronald Madison) do not. 

I have often stated that police are not mental health professionals and that mental health crises should not be part of law enforcement activities. 

Despite the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department having  Mental Evaluation Teams (MET) meant to have health clinicians ride along with sheriff’s deputies since 1993, no MET responded to the Cervantes call.

I believe there are safer ways to handle mental health emergencies, guide individuals and families to humane resources and thereby reduce these catastrophic encounters with police. One of those ways begins with who we call to respond to mental health crises.

Beginning this July, a nationwide mental health crisis number — 988 — is supposed to provide an alternative to 911 and provide more appropriate responses. This is an imperfect start, but it is a start.

In Maryland, no funding has been provided to support the well-resourced systems needed to transition away from the present crisis. If state 988 services go live without funding to manage the spike in crisis call volume, wait times will overwhelm the national suicide hotline meant to take the overflow of calls.  

The risk of being killed by law is 16 times higher for neurodivergent individuals with untreated high support need mental health concerns. So reducing calls to 911 and giving immediate support to those calling 988 is potentially a matter of life and death.

I'm not certain why, if the federal government has seen fit to create the 988 health crisis number, they are not providing state and local governments with funding to bolster resource centers across the nation. Could states begin transferring some funding formerly allotted to law enforcement for mental health crisis response into the resources and services that will be shouldering the responsibility for supporting mental health crisis needs going forward?

Maryland lawmakers are proposing a trust to fund our call centers, and California has a bill working its way through its legislature.

This is Maryland's effort:

This is a life and death question for marginalized autistic and other neurodivergent folx. Like Isaias Cervantes, one phone call can be the difference between receiving help in a crisis, getting permanently injured, unjustly entering the criminal justice system, or dying. 

Help make a difference. Check with your state and ask questions about what non-police resources will be available for your loved ones should they call 988 when it goes live in July. Your actions could help save so many lives.


In memory of Ryan LeRoux

 This #AutismAcceptanceMonth and #SAAM2022, all my essays are being written to encourage your support for @behearddc, a cross-disability abolitionist organization supporting and advocating for Deaf, autistic, and other disabled people in prison or who returned home from prison.
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