This police department in California is now 'autism certified'


During training, officers learn to recognise subtle signs of autism, such as sensitivity to bright lights and sounds. — Photos: Modestopolicedept/Instagram

The Modesto Police Department (MPD) in California, the United States has undergone training to better its interaction with the city’s autistic community, recently announcing that it is now “California’s first Autism Certified Police Department.”

MPD’s new certification comes from the The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), a Florida-based company that gives credentials on criteria approved by its board.

That board is made up of “a variety of specialists and experts, including clinical experts, therapists, special education professionals, and autistic self-advocates”, according to its website.

Lt Joseph Bottoms, who spearheaded the effort, said IBCCES required that at least 80% of the department engage in “a few-hours long” web-based training program in order to be certified.

Understanding how to handle individuals with autism is crucial for police to ensure safe interactions.Understanding how to handle individuals with autism is crucial for police to ensure safe interactions.

Bottoms said that between sworn officers and additional staff, 300 MPD employees have been trained so far.

“It’s super easy and modern. It was very convenient, working with them,” said Bottoms.

“Once you sign up, then they basically get all your email addresses from all your employees and they shoot out a mass email to register at (their) site, and then take the training on your own.”

Bottoms said the training included body-cam footage examples of what to do and what not to do when encountering someone on the autism spectrum - including tips such as using a solid red light instead of bright LEDs or flashing red and blue lights.

“One of the things that we found really fascinating was, if a person with autism, a child with autism is missing, oftentimes, they’re drawn to large bodies of water. Things like that, little tools that we took away, will help us do our job better and serve the community better,” said Bottoms.

While MPD is working to improve its encounters with those already identified as being on the autism spectrum, there isn’t a way for personnel to initially know if people are – barring a few exceptions.

An obvious exception is when a caller asking for police response tells the dispatcher that a subject is on the spectrum.

Bottoms said the new training provided some insights on how to identify a person on the autism spectrum, such as being aware of a person’s physical reactions to the bright lights and sounds of a patrol vehicle.

Noting the person’s reactions, officers then can adjust “our tactics and adjust the things we do in order to... have a better outcome,” Bottoms said.

Modesto Police Department’s approach raises the bar for police support for those with autism.Modesto Police Department’s approach raises the bar for police support for those with autism.

Promoting engagement

There is no way within the MPD that loved ones of people on the spectrum can register them so officers have that information going into a situation like a routine traffic stop, according to Bottoms. This is a system that’s been adopted by other agencies, including the Sonora Police Department in Sonora, California.

“(He) can communicate with you and people say, ‘Well, he doesn’t look autistic’. Well, you know, there’s no such thing as looking autistic unless you are extremely low on a spectrum,” said Michele Smith, whose son is on the spectrum.

Smith’s son, Bryan, was arrested on suspicion of assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon and attempted animal cruelty in 2008, according to court documents.

The complaint against him read that he used his vehicle to assault a police officer and attempted to kill or maim a police K-9 unit. Bryan rejects that account of events.

Smith said an officer with a K-9 demanded Bryan get out of his car after he’d dropped a friend off. He froze, was confused and frightened by the barking dog.

He then put the car in drive, Smith said. As the vehicle rolled forward, the officer took this as him fleeing. He was then taken into custody.

“He didn’t know what he had done. He was petrified, you know, and he couldn’t communicate with them. It could have easily been avoided if they had just approached him in a calm way, asked him to roll his window down or step out of the car quietly or whatever,” Smith said. “The way they approached him, it scared him, and his first reaction was to run and flee.”

Police must know how to handle persons with autism to protect and serve all citizens effectively.Police must know how to handle persons with autism to protect and serve all citizens effectively.

Hands-on learning

How can MPD measure the success of its new training?

MPD currently cannot accurately quantify the efficacy of its new training anc certification. Bottoms said data on the outcomes of those on the spectrum before and after the training, or how many encounters they have with people who are autistic, would be “very, very hard to collect.”

“I think it’s just measured in, in the public’s perception of... how we can better serve them. As far as numbers and things like that, there’s no real accurate number saying we deal with this many autistic individuals on an annual basis,” he said.

While there still are questions and concerns on the future of contact between police and those on the autism spectrum, for a parent like Smith, it’s a step in the right direction.

“The training is one of the first steps in acknowledging that there are people that are semi-functioning or functioning, but when they come into a situation where they’re put on the spot, they don’t think on their feet, they react physically and emotionally to it,” she said. “We as full-functioning adults need to understand that and make allowances for it.” – The Modesto Bee/Tribune News Service

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