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Thursday, February 2, 2017

5 Years After Autistic Teen Stephon Watts Was Killed by Two Calumet City Illinois Police Officers, The Family Still Want Answers

On a parking lot on Pulaski and Torrence Avenues on Wednesday, Renee Watts read from a slip of notebook paper with confidence and poise: Her idiosyncratic, autistic brother should never have been shot and killed by two Calumet City police officers five years ago.

Danelene Powell, mother of Stephon Watts, speaks on Feb. 1, 2017
photo: (Kyle Telechan / Daily Southtown)

Article by Matt McCall for the Daily Southtown | Feb. 1, 2017

About 50 people — political activists like Eric Russell, mothers of teens killed by area cops, families with small children, disabled men and women — stood still and listened as the sun set and the sky turned dark blue above them in Calumet City.

"(The police) knew exactly what they were dealing with and exactly who he was," she said.

Her father, Steven Watts Sr., spoke next. He said he never accepted the death of his son, a gifted African-American child who had taught himself to read and who wanted to make computer games.

Steven Watts said he watched two police officers fire fatal shots in the family's basement, a scene he relives daily.

Stephon Watts' uncle Wayne Watts said he pictures what his nephew would look like today, how his voice would sound.

The boy's mother, Danelene Powell-Dickens, told the crowd that they must make their elected officials care, that her son was only a child with a disability. Before the rally, she was seen yelling at two police officers, asking them to leave.

"You willfully murdered my son!" she said. "How can you insult the name of my son?"
Stephon Watts

Carrying signs and a banner taken from a back of a white hatchback with the license plate "Stephon," the protesters marched on the anniversary of the teen's death past a frozen marsh from the restaurant to the police station two blocks away, two flashing squad cars tailing them.

From the steps of the police station, demonstrators demanded State's Attorney Kim Foxx prosecute the officers that shot and killed Stephon Watts, a Justice Department investigation of the Calumet City Police Department, disability training for all first responders, the establishment of an Independent Civilian Review Board in the area and an annual mental and emotional evaluation for police officers.

"Those of us kissed by the sun have targets on our back," Russell said.

Tom DiFiori, Calumet City assistant chief of police, said the department maintains use of force was justified, but supports the protesters' right to demonstrate. He confirmed that officers involved in the shooting are still with the department.

A hearing for a civil suit the family filed against the city and the two officers that shot Stephon was denied last year.

The rally and march came amid national debate over police brutality and racial profiling with several high-profile killings of African Americans inspiring protests nationwide during the past two years. The names of Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others have become a rallying cries and calls to action for Black Lives Matter activists across the country.

Stephon Watts' story is relatively obscure, but stands out because he was not only a black male teen, but autistic, diagnosed at 9 years old and killed at 15 by police who knew of his disability and had handled him in the past, activists said. For Stephon's parents and the local activists, the killing raises questions of racial profiling and law enforcement's capability to handle calls involving developmentally disabled people and how the two factors combined contributed to his death.

National statistics suggest people with autism spectrum disorders are seven times more likely to encounter police and that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, according to news reports.

Lorrell Kilpatrick, a member of the Gary chapter of Black Lives Matter and the Northwest Indiana-based disability advocacy group Everybody Counts, said it is impossible to disentangle Stephon's death from his identity as a young black man and a disabled person. Black men and people with disabilities are seen as threats officers are trained to react aggressively to, she said. Activists can demand sensitivity training, but Fitzpatrick questions how much sensitivity can be expected in a system where armed officers are sent to perform health checks.

"They're not health professionals, they're not disability professionals," she said. "When you have someone who has an impairment or disability, that person's reactions can run the gamut. They could scream or yell as a symptom of their disability."

On the morning of Feb, 1, 2012, Stephon Watts told his father that he didn't want to go to school on what would have been his third day at Easter Seals Autism Therapeutic School in Tinley Park, according to the family. To punish his son, Steven Watts locked Stephon Watts' computer in a basement bedroom, the family said.

About 8:30 a.m., he caught his son jimmying open the door with a butter knife. They fought over the computer, tugging it back and forth between them, until, frustrated, Steven Watts Sr. called police, the family said. In 2012, Steven Watts told the Chicago Tribune that he was following instructions from social workers and doctors who recommended that the teen should be handled by the authorities when agitated, advice the family had taken many times.

Police had been called on Stephon Watts 10 times in the two years before his death and the address had been flagged with a code alerting officers a person with a developmental disability lived there, the former Calumet City Police Chief Edward Gilmore told the Tribune in 2012. In Dec. 2011, police Tased Stephon after he punched his mother in the face and fled home with a kitchen knife.

On the night Stephon died, officers allegedly found Stephon Watts in the basement with a kitchen knife, which the family maintains was a non-lethal butter knife. When Stephon Watts struck one officer's forearm with the knife, officers fired twice. One officer shot hit Stephon first, under the right armpit. Another officer's bullet pierced Stephon's back, officials said.

Stephon Watts was later pronounced dead at Franciscan St. Margaret Health hospital in Hammond.

Camiella Williams, a Black Lives Matter affiliate and teacher at an alternative high school running for trustee in Chicago Heights, said it is shameful that many of the elected officials that service the suburban areas have not become vocal about the Watts' story and this issue. At her school, she is trained three times a year on how to handle children with developmental disabilities, she said. Officers are only required to attend training once a year and are responsible for the safety of disabled people in the public, she said. The year before Stephon Watts was killed, all 84 Calumet City police officers attended an annual class about dealing with people with autism disorders, authorities told the Tribune in 2012.

"For me to know that this happened to him, I know it can happen to the students under my watch," she said.
Copyright © 2017, Daily Southtown

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