Joey’s Law seeks to prevent fatal misunderstandings in encounters between law enforcement and individuals with special needs.
Joey Weber, who had autism, was fatally shot by a veteran Hays, Kansas, police sergeant last year.
Proposed legislation would allow identification cards to be marked indicating an individual has special needs.
A public hearing on Joey’s law is set for January 31 at the Kansas Statehouse.
In hopes of preventing another tragedy like the fatal police shooting of 36-year-old Joey Weber, who had autism, Kansas Rep. Gail Finney is co-sponsoring Joey’s Law — legislation allowing vehicle registration and government ID cards to indicate when an individual has a disability.
John and Nancy Weber, Joey’s parents, called for such a law after their son was fatally shot by Hays, Kansas, Police Sgt. Brandon Hauptman on August 16, 2016, under highly suspicious conditions the officer said made him “fear for his life.”
Hauptman was not charged for the killing — and Joey’s grieving parents want to ensure another family of a special needs individual has to suffer due to a communication or cognition barrier that could be wrongly interpreted as non-compliance.
Kansas HB 2016, Joey’s Law, seeks to provide law enforcement with necessary information an individual has special needs and a traffic stop, for example, might need to be handled differently than routine. Indeed, a routine traffic stop combined with Hauptman’s failure to understand the situation killed Joey Weber.
Rookie Officer Evan Cronn backed up nine-year veteran Sgt. Brandon Hauptman as they chased Weber for 1.1 miles in their patrol cars after the man failed to comply with orders during a routine traffic stop for expired tags, and — likely out of confusion and anxiety — jumped back in his vehicle and fled the scene.
Weber ultimately stopped his vehicle in front of New Age Services, a community center for people with special needs — a location friends and family surmised afterward represented a safe, familiar space for the man.
Hauptman, who had worked with the special needs community — and is Assistant Team Leader for the Special Situations Response Team — somehow failed to grasp Weber had autism and probably feared for his life in the interaction with the officers.
Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees explained in a press conference more than a month after the fatal shooting, as The Daily Haze paraphrased, “Hauptman used a ‘sweeping motion’ to bring Weber down. When Weber went to the ground, Hauptman got on top of him. It was at that time that Drees claims Weber was continuing to disobey orders, and reached for Hauptman’s gun. Hauptman placed his gun to Weber’s chest and fired one shot.”
A mere eight minutes elapsed from the moment of the initial stop to the instant Hauptman took Weber’s life.
Outrage immediately ensued — particularly in the autism and special needs communities — as did fears inadequately trained officers in Hays and beyond could make a similarly abhorrent fatal error without sweeping changes to training, policy, or law.
Thus, spearheaded by John and Nancy Weber, Joey’s law was born.
“This could possibly happen again, unless we do something to curtail this type of incident,” Rep. Finney told KSN in October. “I do think there’s a solution we can come up with that could work for law enforcement and work for families or persons with disabilities.”
Distinguishing the state-issued items like driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations of qualified people who have autism spectrum disorder or special needs and their caregivers would alert law enforcement and could provide the extra bit of information necessary to save lives.
The group Justice for Joey has given particular attention to Webers’ tragedy, and has led the fight to pass Joey’s Law in the interest of improving “police interactions with people with disabilities.”
Justice for Joey describes the importance of the proposed legislation on its website:
“Kansas lawmakers, Joey’s family and Justice For Joey are drafting a bill to cover the aspects of special needs awareness during a law enforcement encounter. We are currently aiming to establish identification in an attempt to diminish confusion for both law enforcement and a person with a disability in a face-to-face encounter.”
Finney told KSN no perfect answer exists to educate officers about autism and the needs of individuals who perceive the world differently, but the proposed legislation is certainly necessary.
“This is just one step in trying to improve relationships between the police and try to protect families as well,” she said in the bill’s nascent stages.
Losing their beloved, gentle, and kind son, Joey, without receiving any semblance of justice through punishment of Hauptman has been an ordeal the Webers don’t ever want to see repeated — and passage of the law bearing his name might just help to do that.