We, the undersigned disability and LGBT rights organizations, strongly condemn the police shooting of Kayden Clarke, an Autistic transgender man, in his home on February 4 in Mesa, Arizona. Clarke, who identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome – a diagnosis on the autism spectrum – was killed by police who were responding to a suicide call. His death was marked by a twofold failure of police and media to respond appropriately to mental health crisis situations and to respect the identities and experiences of transgender individuals. Moreover, videos made in the weeks before his death highlight the pervasive discrimination that Autistic transgender people, as well as transgender people with other developmental disabilities or mental health concerns, face when seeking transition-related medical care.
According to YouTube videos that Kayden had posted, Kayden had encountered numerous roadblocks to transition, including the failure of multiple mental health professionals to respect either his gender identity or his Autistic identity. Kayden said in his last video that he was particularly devastated after a therapist told him that she would not approve his starting on hormones until after his autism spectrum disorder – which she referred to as a “disease” – was “cured.” Because autism has no “cure,” this amounted to a pronouncement that Kayden would never be eligible to transition. Kayden was frustrated that, although his Asperger’s diagnosis was included in his file, that therapist had apparently performed no research on autism prior to meeting with him and declaring him ineligible for hormone treatment. In light of the numerous suicide attempts that Kayden had described as related to his gender dysphoria, we cannot ignore the possibility that this failure to provide adequate care placed Kayden at heightened risk of experiencing a mental health crisis such as the one that gave rise to the call to the police who killed him. Autistic people’s gender identities are real and must be respected; there is absolutely no excuse for barring transition based on the informed consent of an Autistic individual.
We are also shocked and saddened by the fact that police responding to a suicide call ultimately shot Kayden instead of keeping him safe. Instead of responding appropriately and supportively, police entered his home armed with lethal weapons. Only one of the three officers had received crisis-intervention training. Officers claim that they shot Kayden after he approached them with a knife. Although it may never be possible to know exactly what happened due to the police department’s failure to equip the officers with body cameras, we note that Kayden’s death strongly resembles the shooting of Teresa Sheehan, a California woman with mental illness who was shot nine times while experiencing a mental health crisis. Upon finding that Sheehan was holding a knife, officers failed to take reasonable measures such as waiting outside the building for backup and instead entered Sheehan’s room and shot her. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled that, by failing to follow best practices in de-escalation despite knowing that Sheehan was in mental health crisis, the police might have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
People experiencing mental health crises deserve better. Nobody should have to worry that when they call police to respond to a suicide crisis, the police will kill the person that they are supposed to be helping. Police departments and other public health and safety workers must be trained to understand that people experiencing mental health crises are typically not threats to others and should be treated with care instead of violence. Mental health providers must also be educated on the vital importance of transition-related health care, including for those on the autism spectrum and other disabilities.
These tragedies are sadly all too common and demonstrate the need for serious policy change. We owe it to Kayden, and to all transgender people and people experiencing mental health crises, to stop these preventable deaths.
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
DC Trans Power
National LGBTQ Task Force
Transgender Law Center
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Disability Rights Network
National Council on Independent Living
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD)
Arizona Center for Disability Law
ACLU of Arizona
Southern Arizona Gender Alliance
Disability Visibility Project
Lead On Network