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Police training for contacts with special needs: A great success story

When a woman’s special needs son was gripped by anxiety and self-destructive behavior in a supermarket parking lot, one cop came to the rescue


When Corinne Oestreich — mother to a special needs boy named Hunter — was desperate for some assistance, she turned to Officer Ben Holt of the Sunnyvale (Calif.) Department of Public Safety. As should be expected, Holt valiantly delivered top-notch police service... and then went quietly on about his day. 

Oestreich had just experienced a particularly difficult trip to the grocery store with Hunter. In a fit of anxiety, the boy had thrown himself to the floor and began kicking and screaming. Some of the other patrons stood and stared, while others averted their eyes from the scene. Oestreich would later describe it as “the worst breakdown I have ever seen him go through.” 

In the parking lot, things got worse. While Oestreich was trying to get her son into their car, he began hitting himself in the face. At her wit’s end, she saw Officer Holt in his squad car. She would later comment that she was “99 percent sure he could see the desperation in my eyes.” 

Officer Ben Holt of the Sunnyvale (Calif.) Police Department kneels next to Hunter, a boy whose special needs created an opportunity for law enforcement to shine as brightly as it does thousands of times a day across America. (Image Courtesy of Corinne Oestreich)
Officer Ben Holt of the Sunnyvale (Calif.) Police Department kneels next to Hunter, a boy whose special needs created an opportunity for law enforcement to shine as brightly as it does thousands of times a day across America. (Image Courtesy of Corinne Oestreich)

A cop puts out a fire

“I had reached the point with Hunter where I just didn’t know what to do,” Oestreich told PoliceOne. “I couldn’t get him into our vehicle safely because he kept hitting himself. I saw Officer Holt in his vehicle. I picked up Hunter and took him over there. He stepped out of the car and said, ‘Are you okay?’ I told him that we needed a distraction. I told him that Hunter has special needs. ‘He has Tourette’s, he is OCD, and he has severe anxiety. When he gets hysterical we just need a distraction — something that can calm him down. Sometimes it takes somebody else to kind of just be different from what he’s used to’.”

Keeping a measured distance from the frantic boy, Officer Holt asked him if he wanted to look inside the police car. 

Hunter refused. 

Holt went to the trunk of his squad to see what equipment might turn things around for the boy. 

Sunnyvale cops are also firefighters, so Holt pulled out some of his firefighting equipment — his helmet, and his boots — and Hunter began to calm down. In essence, Holt used his multi-disciplinary training and equipment to put out the metaphorical fire that Corinne Oestreich had seen erupt in that Lucky’s parking lot.

“He went from hysterical crying to this kind of quiet curiosity,” Oestreich told PoliceOne. 

Holt then took out the fingerprint kit and showed the boy how to dust the vehicle for prints — the boy became fully engaged with Officer Holt.

“Hunter loved that!” Oestreich told PoliceOne. 

She added, “Officer Ben wanted me to be sure that he was not in any haste to go anywhere and that Hunter and I were his focus.”

Oestreich was left with the distinct impression that Holt received specialized training on how to interact with people like Hunter who have special needs. That or he has incredible intuition about dealing with people “on the spectrum.”

“He had this kind of instinctual ability to kind of know when Hunter needed him to be a little further away and when it was okay for him to be a little bit closer. He just kind of knew,” Oestreich said.

“Never once did Officer Ben try to touch Hunter. When you’re a parent, your instinct is kind of to console a child with a physical touch or to hug the child. But when a special needs child is in hysteria like that, those things don’t work. And Hunter is non-verbal with other adults, and he was non-verbal with Officer Ben. But Officer Ben didn’t push that — he didn’t try to create a space that was uncomfortable for Hunter. He let Hunter lead the way. That impressed me so much. Sunnyvale is lucky to have someone like Officer Ben on their team.”

Indeed, Sunnyvale DPS, which for many years has conducted CIT training for its officers, had only a few months ago put all of its officers through a POST-approved training on dealing with youth and adult subjects on the ASD spectrum. That training came from Brian Herritt, a retired police officer who provided the department some excellent training on people with special needs. The training clearly paid off as Holt helped Hunter calm down. 

Telling the good stories

With a father who works in corrections, Oestreich was raised always having respect for police officers. She said that she feels that today now more than ever, stories like her experience with “Officer Ben” this week need to be spread far and wide. She posted a short description of her day on Facebook, and that post made its way into the news feed of yours truly. 

“I think with the recent atmosphere and the tension that’s been around, I’ve always tried to make sure that our good officers are not overshadowed by those who maybe make poor choices. Because everybody is human, it’s unfortunate that so many of the negative stories get out there and are heard more than the good ones. I believe that the good stories deserve to be told more so than those who give a bad name to the good guys. There are amazing police officers out there who care for people and that’s why they become officers, and that needs to be heard.”

Full disclosure: In preparing this article, I also spoke briefly with Officer Holt, who politely declined to be quoted. Suffice it to say that while he agrees that stories of the thousands of truly positive police-citizen contacts happening on a daily basis in America should be told, he’s a little uncomfortable with the limelight shining so squarely on him. My impression in speaking with Holt was that he perceived Corinne's post to be unnecessary (kind of like when a cop says "it is all part of the job") but it was also clear to me that he was extremely grateful for her show of appreciation.

Corinne Oestreich is just one example of a citizen who appreciates police officers. There are countless others. Let’s take this opportunity to remind ourselves of this fact. Beware of those predators who will never appreciate you, some of whom even want to kill you. But don’t let the bad guys make you forget that people like Corinne Oestreich exist. 

 

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