ST. CLOUD, Minn. — In the past, police might have had little information to help them navigate interactions with people with disabilities, but one app could help the St. Cloud Police Department change that.

St. Cloud police began using an app from Vitals Aware Services last month, according to Commander Jim Steve.

The app allows citizens to fill out emergency contact forms, de-escalation techniques and personalized profiles for people with “invisible and visible conditions and disabilities,” according to a company brochure.

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The service is free and voluntary to participants, who range from individuals with disabilities or conditions such as dementia to parents and caregivers.

Once a person or their family member signs up, Vitals will provide a free ‘beacon’, or fob, to the individual, which can be worn on shoelaces, watches or necklaces.

When police come within 80 feet of a beacon, an alert appears on their phones. With information from the app, police can personalize encounters, Sergeant Tad Hoeschen said.

If someone doesn’t like law enforcement, an officer will know to call an officer in plainclothes.

If someone is nonverbal, police will know who to contact to help them.

If someone doesn’t like to be touched, an officer can make sure to stay several feet away, Hoeschen said.

Officers can address people by their names and personalize their initial contact.

If someone is having a reaction to a situation, for example, and police are called, the app will provide more information on how to best handle the situation.

All of the information provided by families is submitted through the company, not the police, and is secured and provided only to authorized first responders.

Police will not stop or question anyone simply because an alert appears on their phones, said Steve. The information will be used when police need to provide assistance.

The beacon can also help police coordinate grid searches if a person with autism or dementia, for example, goes missing and has a beacon on them.

Family members can also choose to upload videos for the police to play in certain situations.

The Twin Cities-based company behind the app was launched in August 2017 in partnership with The Autism Society of Minnesota. More than 30 first responding agencies are using the app service, according to a release.

The Arc Minnesota-Midstate Region has endorsed St. Cloud first responders’ use of the app.

“Vitals is a new tool which will allow us to work smarter and better leverage city-wide efforts to keep individuals safe in our community,” said Blair Anderson, police chief, in a release. “Our goal is to help people in need by connecting them with the right resources at the right times.”

Before the department entered a one-year contract with the service, according to Steve, the company came to St. Cloud and presented to police and community stakeholders, such as employees from group homes or retirement homes.

After the first 15 minutes of the meeting, every officer in the room could think of a situation where the app would have been helpful, said Hoeschen.

Everyone thought, “Why aren’t we doing it?” Hoeschen said. “To us, it was that remarkable.”

The app comes at a “minimal cost for the benefits,” said Steve, and the use “outweigh(s) the cost.”

Each squad car will have a smartphone with the app on it. Resource officers, campus officers and others who are frequently out of squad cars have it downloaded on their phones.

“This information is game-changing,” said Steve.

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