Law enforcement and Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month, however, local law enforcement agencies provide training year-round to ensure their staff are aware of the unique needs of individuals who have Autism and other special conditions.

Autism refers to a wide range of conditions in varying degrees that can be characterized in challenges with repetitive behaviors, speech, social skills, and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Autism affects an estimated one in 44 children in the United States today.

Robin Pemberton, who is known locally as bringing awareness about the subject of autism, met with Washington County Sheriff Kevin Crews in 2017 to broach the need for a way to communicate special needs to law enforcement officers after her son, Evan, had what she called a “meltdown” outside their home. She said she realized had a law enforcement officer pull up to the scene, the situation could have gone from bad to worse.

[Evan] was yelling, hitting, rolling around on the ground like a 2 year old,” said Pemberton. “He was kicking his legs in the air, then he jumped up and ran toward me. I am a big girl, and I just brace myself.  I know he will snap out of it soon … What if one of those cars driving by my house saw him charging toward me and called the police? What if someone saw him flapping and swinging his arms called the police and reported a ‘man’ fighting a woman in the yard? What if the police drove up, and he was screaming bloody murder?  What if they tell him to stop and he doesn’t? What would they do?”

Pemberton said the incident led her to meet with Sheriff Crews the next morning to have a proactive discussion.

“This opened up an opportunity to train our law enforcement officers to be educated in Autism, what it is, and more importantly, how a person acts when he is having a meltdown,” sje said. “They need to be informed before arriving at my house that someone with Autism lives here and things need to handled differently.  They need to be aware how to approach the situation because people with Autism are different.  What appears to be a grown man attacking a woman is just my innocent Evan having a meltdown.  He means no harm to me or anyone.”

After meeting with Pemberton, Sheriff Crews created a database in the 911 system that alerts anyone entering a registered address that someone with Autism or special needs lives there. These alerts allow law enforcement information on the person who lives there with those special needs. Perhaps the person is non-verbal; they aren’t being defiant and not responding; they just simply cannot speak. The person could be acting erratically, but that is not intentional; it is part of their special needs.

Later that same year, the state legislature passed a law requiring all law enforcement to be educated in Autism, agreeing this type of alert allows responding law enforcement and EMS officials the power to be better prepared for the situation they may be entering. 

Both Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Holmes County Sheriff’s Office deputies have completed the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training course in mental health awareness as required by law.

Crews says the calls for someone with special needs is rare. “We don’t get calls often for people with special needs, Autism or otherwise,” said Crews. “But when they do come in, we are prepared to handle them properly.”

Holmes County Sheriff John Tate says living in a small community has its advantages in that deputies are frequently well acquainted with those who have special needs. “We are lucky to live in small counties because we know almost everyone,” said Tate. “However, with new people moving in, we may not know them and their stories.”

Holmes County Sheriff’s Office implemented a program called Project Lifesaver, a service in which caregivers may request a special bracelet that serves as a tracking device in case their loved one who has a special need become lost. Caregivers can contact the sheriff’s office and set an appointment to meet with Deputy Jason Stafford, who oversees the program. The bracelet is programmed with a frequency number. Should the person wearing the bracelet wander off or go missing, the caregiver calls HCSO, who will then enter the frequency number into a transmitter and begin following the tone to locate the person. Stafford says the quicker the call is made, the better. 

“We encourage caregivers to call us once they discover their loved one is missing,” said Stafford. “The sooner we receive the call, it increases the chances of saving a loved one’s life.” The bracelet is available for all age groups and is also especially helpful for those who have memory care conditions such Alzheimer’s.

Like Washington County, Holmes County also has a database to help serve special citizens and their caregivers. 

“Our goal is the safety of everyone involved in a situation,” said Tate. “Safety is paramount for not only the special needs person but for our deputies as well. It is helpful for us to know what we are walking into so that we can be better prepared for anything that may happen.”

Caregivers interested in registering an address for someone with Autism or another special need can do so by visiting the Washington County Sheriff’s Office at 711 Third Street in Chipley or the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office at 211 North Oklahoma Street in Bonifay.

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