App Bridges Gap Between Police, Those With Special Needs
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A new smartphone application will give St. Paul police officers information about vulnerable people during a crisis to improve their interactions with those with disabilities or mental illness.
The department announced this week that it has become the first in the state to use Vitals, an app designed to supply first responders and officers with data about a person’s diagnosis, medications and caregiver contact information, plus suggested ways to calm the person.
“For paramedics and officers to have that information on the scene is invaluable,” said St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster.
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To use the app, an individual or their caregiver must sign up online and supply relevant information. Officers receive an alert when they’re near someone who has a profile in the application.
The app is aimed at various groups who have “invisible disabilities” and can’t always communicate effectively in difficult situations, said officer Rob Zink. That includes people with autism spectrum disorder, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, other mental health issues, diabetes and seizure disorders.
People with those diagnoses may be prone to wandering off, having public meltdowns or doing things that appear unusual. The information would help officers understand the context of their behavior and how best to handle it, Zink said.
About 10 officers and 100 vulnerable people just completed a six-month pilot program in St. Paul to try out the app. It was developed by VariAware, a Minnesota tech company, along with the police department and the Autism Society of Minnesota.
“I just think it’s going to be a great opportunity for our families,” said Dawn Brasch, the Autism Society of Minnesota’s interim executive director. “This is an amazing tool.”
All 600 St. Paul officers will have the app on their phones by mid-September and be trained in its use, Zink said.
The impetus for the app came a year and a half ago, after an interaction between police and a child with autism turned physical.
“We were sitting in the office and one of the things (we said) was, ‘God, if I only knew that person was on the spectrum, how would have the whole incident changed?'” said Zink, who has two sons with autism.
The app requires the vulnerable person to wear a card, button or bracelet called a “beacon” that alerts officers when they come within 30 to 80 feet of them. When the person wearing a beacon is near an officer, the officer receives an alert on their phone, and that person’s profile pops up.
In addition to a name, description, photo and diagnosis, the profile may include information about stimuli that can cause the person to act out and tips to de-escalate stressful situations. It may even incorporate audio clips, such as the voice of a family member, to soothe the person.
Charlene Wilford of St. Paul participated in the pilot program with her son, Devonte Ray-Burns, 14, who has autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and developmental and cognitive delays.
Several years ago, Ray-Burns ran away and was missing for hours. The Vitals app will help if something like that happens again, Wilford said.
“If it wasn’t for this, I don’t know what I’d do,” she said. “It means that I can relax and my child’s going to be safer.”
Between 20 and 30 police departments in the metro area have expressed interest in the technology, said G.L. Hoffman, Vitals’ co-founder.
National groups have also requested more information, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
There are challenges to making it work, Zink said, including getting people to sign up. If 10,000 to 15,000 people in St. Paul upload profiles, he said, he would consider that a success.
The app also costs money. The St. Paul Police Department won’t pay anything to use it for the next two years because of their contract with Vitals. But memberships cost $9.95 a month.
Vitals employees said they’re working on a way to make the app cheaper or free for low-income people.
Some disability advocates had questions about privacy and how secure the data would be once entered in the app. Brasch said participation is completely voluntary and individuals can choose how much information to upload.
Officers don’t use the data unless there’s a problem, she said.
Jillian Nelson, an adult with autism, participated in the pilot program. When she had a meltdown recently at a store, officers used her Vitals profile to understand what was happening.
“It turned that situation around in seconds,” Nelson said. “They were able to see me as someone who needed help.”
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