Why was Stephon Watts killed?

February 27, 2012

Rory Fanning reports on how one family and community are grappling with a horrific episode of police violence against a mentally ill Black teenager.

STEPHON WATTS suffered from autism, but he was like other 15-year-olds in many ways. He loved to fix computers, watch YouTube and read Dr. Seuss books.

On the morning of February 1, Stephon was having an emotional meltdown because he didn't want to go to school. His father, Steven Watts, called the hospital and described the situation, and they told him to call police.

This wasn't unusual. The local Calumet City, Ill., police had been to the home 10 times under similar circumstances, and Stephon's social worker had also counseled the family to call police in various situations.

Stephon had calmed down soon after his father called the police, and by the time four white police officers arrived, he was sitting quietly in the basement of his home. But the sight of the officers frightened him, so he raised a butter knife and lunged at the gun-toting men, according to his father.

That's when police shot and killed the African American teenager.

Police say they drew their weapons and yelled for Stephon to drop the butter knife. He didn't. Moments later, two officers ended Stephon's life. One of the officers received a superficial cut to the arm.

Danelene Powell-Watts (second from right) marches alongside supporters in a vigil for her son Stephon
Danelene Powell-Watts (second from right) marches alongside supporters in a vigil for her son Stephon

"I want people to know that I'm grieving," Stephon's father told reporters. "I want police to know that they really hurt me. I just called the police to help. That's all I did. I didn't call them for any other reason than to have them help me calm down my son. It led to his death."

Shortly after the killing, 80 people, including family members and civic and religious leaders, gathered outside the Calumet City Police Department headquarters to protest the murder. On February 25, the community held a second march and rally that covered the two-mile stretch from police headquarters to Calumet City Hall.

Local and state police have so far been unresponsive to the Watts family's requests for information about the investigation into Stephon's murder, and the family has a meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice scheduled for March 9.

"The one thing that we look for our police to do is serve and protect," said Alicia Murchison, one of the protesters who also has a child with autism. "To think of this is just unjustifiable."

Stephon's father and one of his uncles, Minister Aaron Watts, stood in front of the entrance to the police station, holding a picture of Stephon, and Minister Watts pledged to organize sit-ins each Wednesday at the Calumet City police station, starting at the hour Stephon was shot. The family and church members are also calling for a boycott in Calumet City until the racism and brutality within the police department is purged.

Sam Anderson, the president of the Chicago local of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU)--Stephon's mother works for the post office--acknowledged the link between fighting against police violence and the attack on public-sector unions. "I am not comparing losing a son to losing a job, but we [the African American community] are being attacked from all angles," said Anderson. "I want the family to know that the APWU will do whatever it takes ensure Stephon and his family receive the justice they deserve."

According to Wayne Watts, another of Stephon's uncles, Stephon's father told him, "Wayne, I keep seeing the smoke [from the cop's gun]. It's the first thing I see in the morning, and the last thing I see at night before I go to bed. It's even in my dreams."

LIVING IN the impoverished and predominantly Black community of Dolton, Ill., Stephon and his parents didn't have access to the schools and social services that children and parents have in more affluent communities.

"Children in poor African American communities, on average, are diagnosed with autism at the age of six," according to Joshua Krasne of the Resource Center for Autism and Developmental Delays, who has worked with children with autism for 20 years. "The average white child living in a more prosperous neighborhood is diagnosed at the age of three. This is evidence that these communities do not have access to the resources more wealthy communities have access to."

Stephon was diagnosed at the age of nine with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

The lack of resources for poor and working-class children with autism will only be intensified in the wake of new austerity measures in Illinois that cut into the already limited access to mental health facilities.

"Emotional eruptions are considered a behavioral symptom of the diagnosis of certain cases of autism," according to Krasne. "In many cases they are considered normal. These officers should have also realized that the aggressor is in fact the victim when it comes to autistic aggression. There was absolutely nothing justifiable about this killing."

"Emotional standoffs escalate when there is a lack of significant communication [with the person with autism]," continued Krasne. "If the officers were loud and aggressive, this would have certainly escalated the situation. The child needed to be distracted. If going to school was the issue of the day, he should have been calmly asked what else he wanted to do."

Dawn La Brose, a clinical social worker with 15 years of experience working with children with autism, pointed out: "These officers had previous knowledge of this child and should have received crisis prevention intervention (CPI) training. The training is available and out there. If the officers had CPI training, they would have known that the last thing a child with autism needs is an audience. One person, not four, should have been talking with the child."

SOME 400 people attended the four-hour funeral for Stephon on February 18, and about 30 people spoke, many battling to choke back their grief. One after another, they expressed their deep love and affection for Stephon. "Stephon was shy and quiet, but showed great love for those he trusted," said his pastor J.B. Dillon, who along with nine other pastors, bishops and elders presided over the service.

The event was filled with a palpable tension. On the one hand, there were calls to forgive the officers and to find peace in the Bible's assurances that Stephon is now in a better place. On the other, there was broad recognition of the need to fight back against a blatantly racist system of law enforcement that enabled two police officers to draw and fire their weapons at a mentally disabled Black 15-year-old armed only with a butter knife.

The comments that generated the most applause from the family and community expressed simple outrage. "We didn't come up here from Mississippi and Arkansas to be gunned down by ignorant racist cops," said one of the bishops presiding over the funeral. And Wainwright Powell, Stephon's uncle, condemned a system that has "legalized the murder of Black folks.

Near the end of funeral, Stephon's 13-year-old cousin Michael recited a poem he wrote the day he found out about Stephon's murder. The name of the poem is "They Say":

They say a black man isn't good for nothing.
They say a black man likes to kill.
They say a black man likes to steal.
They say a black man doesn't create anything.

Well, a black man didn't create the pain I am feeling right now.

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