Example of better policing through improved understanding
Loud and unexpected noises, chaotic situations and deviation from routine can be especially upsetting for those on the autism spectrum. Any of these situations can trigger extreme reactions.
With this in mind, picture a typical interaction with law enforcement. They usually occur unexpectedly and can include wailing sirens, bright flashing lights, shouting and confusion. Such scenarios are upsetting for anyone, but for those on the autism spectrum, these incidents can be especially agonizing and traumatic.
City of Groton Police Chief Mike Spellman and his department have taken steps to take some of the fear and stress out of police encounters with residents on the autism spectrum. Modeled on a program begun in Stonington, one that Spellman also had a hand in instituting when he served on the Board of Selectmen in that town, the Groton City Police recently launched a database of information about residents on the autism spectrum. Information is voluntarily supplied by family members and caregivers. It is designed to provide police with tools that can help ensure encounters go smoothly and calmly.
Spellman said the information could range from the fact a person is a fan of the New England Patriots to knowing they always watch a particular television show or that macaroni and cheese is their go-to meal. All such information can help an officer build rapport and de-escalate, rather than enflame, a potentially tense situation.
While the Groton program was inspired by the one launched in 2017 in Stonington, it also has gone beyond its counterpart in important ways. A Groton City officer is a certified instructor with ALEC, Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition, and Spellman said he envisions expanding the database for use with other groups of residents. Among these are residents with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.
We applaud these Groton City Police efforts, which demonstrate a true dedication to understanding and serving its community. Nearly one in 50 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to statistics from Autism Speaks. The disorder is much more prevalent in boys: one in every 34.
The advocacy group Autism Society of America estimates one in five young adults on the spectrum will have an encounter with law enforcement by the time they reach the age of 21. The group also notes that individuals with disabilities, including autism, are five times more likely to be incarcerated than those without disabilities. Such statistics are not indelible. Emphasizing de-escalation and rapport-building in the face of tense situations, as this program does, can make a difference.
At recent community protests throughout the country, including many right here in southeastern Connecticut, residents have called for substantive changes in policing. The Groton City and Stonington programs are aimed at calmer and more effective dealing with residents with disabilities and not, as protests demanded, improving police handling of encounters with people of color. Still, the autism program is built on a foundation of basic human respect and dignity, of aiming to calm and defuse tension. These principles can and should be expanded and applied across the board to all populations to help develop stronger and more trusting police-community relationships.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.
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