New Tool Helps Police Tailor Response To Those With Special Needs
BRUNSWICK, Maine — When Freya Colella’s older son had “a meltdown” last month and barricaded himself inside his bedroom, she called the Brunswick police for help.
Before moving to Brunswick last winter, Colella had learned not to call the police when the nearly 12-year-old boy lost control because police in the southern Maine community where the family formerly lived “just made it worse,” she said.
But this time, when her son used the kitchen table to block his bedroom door, leaving the house looking like “a tornado hit from the inside,” Colella called the non-emergency police line and told them, “I’m having an issue here.”
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Communications Officer Jeff Lajoie answered the call, and immediately looked up the woman’s son in the department’s new Developmental Disabilities Database, where Colella had registered her two sons earlier in May.
As Officer Will Brown headed to the home, Lajoie sent him information about various medical issues Colella had alerted them to that could cause “meltdowns,” as well as triggers that could make the situation even worse.
Colella’s son is afraid of the police, so Brown turned off the lights and siren. When he arrived, Brown, who graduated from the police academy only a year ago, stood at the bedroom door and talked about NASCAR and soccer, calming the boy and helping him through an episode of a condition that in the past had resulted in less pleasant encounters with law enforcement.
Before he left, he gave Colella his card, with the days and hours he works written on the back.
“Will said, ‘We don’t want him to be afraid of the police,'” Colella said. “He said to call him on the days he’s here and if he’s not busy, he could come kick around the ball or play with the lights on the cruiser.”
In the past, according to Colella, police officers in another community put her younger son, who is on the autism spectrum, in “a safe hold,” which she said is simply a trigger for children with sensory processing disorder. Once an officer told her, “He should be going to juvie (a youth detention center).”
“We have very little training at the (police) academy about this,” said Brunswick Police Detective Rich Cutliffe, who developed Brunswick’s program. “If someone walks away from you or doesn’t make eye contact, (an officer) could take that as a sign of aggression, and handle it as if the person was not following a direct order … and then you find out they have a developmental disability. You think, ‘If I had known, I would have handled this a lot differently.'”
Cutliffe wanted Brunswick officers to be better prepared. After meeting several years ago with a group of public safety officials who all have experience with developmental disabilities through family or friends, Cutliffe based Brunswick’s database on a presentation by federal probation Officer Matt Brown.
Over the past three years, parents have registered their children, providing information about the child’s special circumstances that the police could use to help.
Lajoie also took a call recently from a man driving home from work who reported that his wife, who was at their home, was having a medical situation.
“When I looked at the information on the CAD, it showed they had an autistic child,” Lajoie said.
He dispatched police officers to the scene as the ambulance was responding in order to occupy the child, if necessary, “so the medics could concentrate on providing care to the patient.”
Colella said she was initially concerned about giving out so much of the boys’ personal information.
“I said, ‘Is this going to follow him? Is he going to be labeled a troublemaker? I don’t want to set him up to fail,'” she said.
But Cutliffe reassured her that the information stays only in the Brunswick Police Department computers. Currently the “database” is a 3-inch binder full of information sheets about children in 30 to 40 families. It’s slowly being entered into a CAD system so that when a child’s name pops up on their screen, the dispatcher is immediately alerted to the special circumstances.
Eventually, when a dispatcher receives a call regarding a child in the database, a note will pop on on the screen that will cue the dispatcher in to their special needs.
The database is entirely voluntary, Cutliffe said, and “if a family wants the information taken out, we would take out the parts about the disability.”
Colella said she rests easier knowing police are familiar with her boys, and know, for example, that the younger one loves water, is very sensitive to loud noises and is attracted to lights and animals. If he disappears, his mother said, police will know where to look first.
© 2015 the Bangor Daily News
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