MAHOPAC, N.Y. - About one child in 59 has an autism spectrum disorder in the United States, and about one in six has severe intellectual and developmental disabilities such as speech and language impairments and cerebral palsy, according to MultiBriefs, a publisher of industry information for trade professionals.
People with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of a violent crime and roughly one-third to half of all people killed by police are disabled.
Dealing with autistic and differently-abled people has been a challenge for law enforcement, primarily due to a lack of training. Last year, an incident at a Costco in California brought this issue to the forefront when an off-duty police officer shot and killed a 32-year-old man who was non-verbal and described by family as severely developmentally disabled.
A Los Angeles Times op-ed piece revealed that most police officers do not understand the symptoms of mental illness and physical or intellectual disability. The report said they look at behaviors such as self-stimulation, extreme anxiety, delusions, and rages as criminal behavior.
Now, the Carmel Police Department and Mahopac School District’s Special Education Parent-Teacher Organization (SEPTO) are working together to make sure nothing like that happens here.
As Carmel PD continues to ramp up its community policing endeavors, it has also begun a collaboration with SEPTO to develop a database of special-needs students throughout the community that will serve as a tool for officers when they respond to a call. The department has also increased its officers’ training so they will better be able to recognize such behaviors. Two Carmel officers just returned from First Responders Disability Awareness Training at the Westchester Police Academy and are, in turn, now training their fellow officers.
“It’s part of the overall effort to bring more community policing to the Carmel Police Department,” said Officer Erin Macom, who attended the training. “It was extremely informative—very in-depth.”
It was a chance meeting between Macom and SEPTO member Paul Hammer at last year’s Carmel Street Fair that planted the seed for the idea to create the database.
Hammer is the father of a teenage son with special needs.
“I had seen stories on Facebook, horror stories about interactions between special-needs kids [and police],” he said. “I don’t want to put my son in that position. That scares and concerns me. I was curious about how the Carmel Police Department handles it.”
Macom was with a patrol car at the fair, representing Carmel PD as part of its community policing efforts, and Hammer approached her about the topic.
“I found out that they have the training and an intervention process in place about how to work with kids with special needs,” Hammer said. “I asked [Macom] if she wouldn’t mind meeting with Mahopac SEPTO and share that with us. My son is high-functioning autistic, but we have other parents with kids with other disabilities that pose other challenges.”
Hammer presented the idea of having Carmel PD come and speak to the group to SEPTO President Ben Dilullo, who liked it.
Macom and fellow Carmel PD officer Vinnie Serio attended the meeting and many concerns, thoughts and ideas were presented and the database initiative was born.
“It made me feel good that the parents could share their concerns and ideas that could be helpful,” Hammer said. “It was like a lovefest. It also grew a new appreciation for the police department.”
Macom said she and Serio learned that the SEPTO parents were open to the idea of the police meeting their children and learning who they were, should they encounter them.
“We thought of [creating] a meet-and-greet information sheet that could be submitted to a database,” she said. “It could have a picture and things the parents think we should know, such as the child is non-verbal or [prone to] run away. This is especially important when minutes count; the dispatcher can update us while we are en route. It’s important to know the disability so you can assess the situation.”
The form that parents fill out to have their child entered into the database (something that will be totally voluntary) is still a work in progress.
“[SEPTO] has been helping us [create the form],” Macom said. “We don’t know what the parents think we should know.”
But the officers point out that the database is just another tool at their disposal and wouldn’t be much help without the training they go through.
“Besides the training, we go through, all the calls we go to are on-the-job training, but it was nice to get a refresher on it,” said Serio, referring to the two-day workshop he and Macom attended last month. “Autism, Tourette's syndrome, the deaf community. We have resources to communicate with the deaf community now and it makes our jobs easier. We can go back and pass the info on to the rest of the department, so everything we know, they are going to know.
“It all comes down to timing,” he continued. “When we get a call and are responding, on the way we are going through scenarios in our head. When we go through the database, we will know what syndrome they have—what they respond to. We don’t have to waste time; we already know it.”
Hammer said having such information at the officers’ fingertips will be invaluable to them.
“The hope with the database is if an officer has an interaction with a special-needs kid, they reach out to dispatch, and they can pull up what the kid has,” he said. “What are his triggers, what can set him off and how to counteract that? Right now, it’s a rough draft, still being worked on, and it’s voluntary. Every parent might not want to participate, but as the word gets out, maybe more information can be provided so officers are better able to intercede with the kids.”
Dilullo, SEPTO president, said it’s all part of the organization’s mission statement: to raise awareness.
“We represent the entire district and its special needs population, and the mission statement is to raise awareness and provide support with programs by helping parents and dealing with their situations,” he said, noting that this is not a school district initiative. “We are essentially a support group to help parents, teachers, and administrators.
“We have tried to bring ideas like this to the forefront and I thought this was a good one,” he added. “I think it’s important because we are trying to help these kids as they get older. They are special-needs ‘kids’ throughout their whole lives. It fits nicely with what we are trying to do.”
Dilullo said that right now the concept of the database is limited to the Carmel PD, but there is an opportunity to grow and get neighboring police agencies involved as well.
Hammer agreed, saying that’s the ultimate goal.
“It’s not sharable with other police departments because every department has its own system,” he said. “But the long-term goal is to make it accessible to other police departments—local to county to state. We’d love to have it statewide. But right now, it’s baby steps.”