VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - A man with autism was mistakenly detained for shoplifting at a 7-Eleven in Virginia Beach on Saturday, November 20, according to the man's father.
The father, Kashif Eaton, said his son, Kashif Eaton Jr., went to the store around 7 a.m., and was gone for longer than usual.
“After about 40 minutes, it started to worry me because he wasn’t back yet and he wasn’t answering his phone,” Eaton said.
Eaton said he then received a call from police, saying his son was in custody for theft. Eaton rushed to the store, and by the time he got there, his son was already released from custody.
Eaton said the officers checked the surveillance footage and realized Eaton Jr. was not the suspect in question.
“I’m just not understanding how they make that mistake. I don’t get it,” Eaton said.
The Virginia Beach Police Department released a statement about the incident:
"Officers detained the individual, as they were conducting a criminal investigation. Officers determined very quickly that the person detained was not the suspect in question, and released him. Each investigation is different, and there are times when the use of handcuffs are necessary for safety reasons."
Eaton said explaining the situation to his son has been difficult because his son is on the autism spectrum.
“He was very angry, very upset, and he didn’t understand what happened. He was telling me, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, so why are they putting me in handcuffs?'" Eaton said.
The police department also addressed training in their statement, saying, "100% of our officers have received training focused on autism through blocks of instruction in the academy as well as additional segments of our CIT and Project Lifesaver programs, which both have dedicated blocks of training related to autism."
Eaton said this is not the first time his son has been mistakenly detained. According to Eaton, in 2019, Eaton Jr. was detained while riding his bike in the early morning on the way to work. Eaton said his son was deemed suspicious and was placed in custody. He was later released.
“They can think that it’s fine and it’s over, but he’s gonna think about that forever. Every time he sees a police [officer], it’s going to be the same thing now,” Eaton said.
Local organization the Autism Society of Tidewater helps bring awareness to the autism community. Vice President Alfred Howard said autism can present differently from case to case.
"You have some low-functioning individuals who may not be verbal and may struggle with very basic tasks, to very high-functioning individuals who may not even know that they have autism unless they have told you,” Howard said.
Howard said they work with local law enforcement, first responders, and community members to shed light on autism. In 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported 1 in 54 people are born with autism. Howard said sometimes people mistake lack of eye contact or avoidance as suspicious behavior.
“We are all different, but we need to embrace those differences,” Howard said.
For more information on autism support in Hampton Roads, visit the Autism Society of Tidewater's web page or Facebook page.