Law Enforcement, Autism and Public Safety

Apr 19, 2018

As part of our recognition of National Autism Awareness Month, WMRA has been examining the spectrum disorder and the people it impacts. In the fourth installment of our series, we take a deep look at how the issue of public and individual safety has evolved. WMRA’s Jordy Yager reports.

Andrew Baxter is the chief of Charlottesville’s Fire Department.

ANDREW BAXTER: Autism is a diagnosis that’s derived from three primary components…

He’s also the father of a 19-year-old with autism.

BAXTER: Difficulties in communication, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and oftentimes associated with what are called repetitive restrictive behaviors.

Baxter’s department responds to more than 6,000 calls for service a year. He knows crisis. He also knows autism. And what he describes is extremely common for people on the spectrum—difficulties with communication. 

BAXTER: And often times folks that are in crisis that are having trouble communicating, their communication takes the form of behaviors, which outside an understanding or context of what their primary disability is can seem or be threatening.

So threatening, that police and other first responders can easily mistake it for other things—criminal things. And so in 2005, the city and surrounding counties began what’s known as Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT.

TOM VON HEMERT: I’ve always heard, people always say, I know how to talk to anybody, but it’s really more of how to listen.

Tom Von Hemert is the CIT coordinator for the area. It’s a nationwide 40-hour course open to first responders and anybody who works with people with differing abilities. And when Von Hemert says it’s about listening, he doesn’t just mean words, but more so, body language, behaviors.

VON HEMERT: And a crisis is a crisis is a crisis. So again, we don’t diagnose, we look at the behaviors and then try to figure out what is the appropriate, safest, most respectful response to keep everybody safe.  

And that can be really tricky, because as Chief Baxter says…

BAXTER: When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. So there are some sort of general themes that apply across the board as a population. But there is no one typical person with autism.

Baxter says the more people on the spectrum that first responders can get to know while they’re not in crisis, the better. And take CIT, he says. Baxter’s been training with Von Hemert since CIT began in the area. He says it “operationalizes empathy.”

The training isn’t exclusive to autism, and it covers a wide range of mental disorders and intellectual disabilities, but for all of them, the training takes what can be more abstract concepts and makes them personal, relatable. It de-stigmatizes mental illness and conditions such as autism. Von Hemert says, it all starts with language.

VON HEMERT: So one of the things that you will hear is, “Oh that’s an autistic person,” or “That’s a mentally ill person.” No, it’s a person with a mental illness, it’s a person with autism. You don’t ever say, it’s a cancer person. It’s a person with cancer. Our behavior follows our words.

Once that groundwork is laid, CIT puts them through crisis scenarios and critiques their response. Detective Mike Wells with the Albemarle Police Department has been in the field for 24 years and says CIT is a must.

DET. MIKE WELLS:  Law enforcement has kind of evolved. Sometimes we are social workers with a badge, and we have to put those caps on and think outside the box and find out what’s more appropriate for someone. Yes, maybe a crime’s been committed, but is it a result of a mental illness, so what’s appropriate? 

Instead of jail, which is the number one mental health service provider in the state, CIT trains officers to reach out to the community services board. For the Charlottesville area that’s Region Ten.

Pam Fisher is the director of day services there and has worked with people with autism for more than 30 years. She says one of the biggest safety risks for them is what’s known as “elopement.”

PAM FISHER: Forty-nine percent of emergency calls for individuals with autism are wandering or running off. And individuals often gravitate towards water sources or traffic.

Elopement is extremely dangerous and can lead to being hit by a car or even drowning, Fisher explains. As a result, local advocates have backed a program called Project Lifesaver, which outfits GPS transmitters to people with autism, in a watch, a purse, a shoe, wherever it can fit.

Sometimes protecting loved ones with autism means protecting them from themselves, or in dire situations filing an emergency protective order, which can bring them to hospitals, such as the University of Virginia medical center.  Ben Rexrode is UVA PD’s crime prevention coordinator and says CIT has changed the nature of their work irreversibly.

BEN REXRODE: It may not always be for our officers out on the side of road somewhere, at a house, but we’re doing it pretty frequently being within that health system where a lot of these folks are coming into for that assistance and treatment where we’re put in a room with them, face to face, and do have to communicate with them and deescalate pretty regularly.

So much of caring for someone with autism is recognizing how their norms don’t match up with those of society’s at-large, and then taking steps to keep them from harm. If approached for money on the street, parents say their young adult children have given the person their whole wallet. And, as Chief Baxter explains, that level of implicit trust can be dangerous.

BAXTER: Our son Pete is 19, and he’s doing very well, but if someone pulled up in front of our house in a van and said, “Get in the van, I’ve got Oreo cookies.” Pete would get in the van. Because he loves Oreo cookies more than he fears strangers.

But Baxter says, all the worry, the precautions, the training. It’s all worth it, a million times over.

BAXTER: These folks are a vital part of the community, they’re fun and loving. And particularly in public safety, we often focus on the crisis part of it, but they’re an essential valued component of the community.