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IACP 2013: Don’t say ‘retarded’: Improving officer interaction with special-needs individuals

The C.A.R.E. initiative, presented at IACP 2013, is far more than just information stored in a database — it’s about building positive, productive relationships in the community

During a Sunday morning IACP Conference session, Chief Daniel Meloy and Officer Nicholas McCarthy of the Colerain (Ohio) Police Department presented an excellent seminar entitled “Citizens with Special Needs: How to Keep the Community and Officers Safe.“

Regular readers of this space know that I have written frequently on the topic of police officer interaction with special-needs subjects. I’ve interviewed some of the nation’s top experts on the subject of autism and other disorders on the spectrum. In so doing, I’ve become something of an expert on the subject myself.

Today’s seminar stands alone as the most practical and most easily implemented solution I’ve encountered since I first started exploring the issue a half decade ago. Chief Meloy opened the session by saying, “When you walk out of here today you’ll have a better understanding of how to create a better and safer community.” I believe that when you’re done reading this column, the same will be true...

Chief Daniel Meloy and Officer Nicholas McCarthy of the Colerain (Ohio) Police Department presented an excellent seminar during IACP 2013 entitled ‘Citizens with Special Needs: How to Keep the Community and Officers Safe.’
Chief Daniel Meloy and Officer Nicholas McCarthy of the Colerain (Ohio) Police Department presented an excellent seminar during IACP 2013 entitled ‘Citizens with Special Needs: How to Keep the Community and Officers Safe.’

A Special Boy... and a Very Special Cop
Officer Nicholas McCarthy — standing six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds — has “the cop look.” Hair cut high and tight, arms as thick as some people’s thighs, and the eyes of a hard-charging “cop’s cop” who’s been there and done that. The kind of guy you’d want to ride with you in your squad.

He’s also the father of a special-needs boy, so when he responded to a call at which a young boy on the ASD spectrum turned violent, Officer McCarthy knew the signs of — and more importantly, some of the calming techniques for — an autistic person’s “meltdown issues.”

Any officer would have been justified to use force in the situation. At 10 years old, “Little Elgin” was as big as our burly copper, and the boy had already attacked McCarthy with a table and a vase.

“It would have been a full-on fight,” McCarthy said. “It would have been justified, but that’s not what needed to happen.”

Chief Meloy added, “Someone hits you with a chair or a vase. He’s as big as you and as strong as you. You’d be justified to use force — I don’t think any of us would disagree with that — but can you see the headlines tomorrow? ‘Police Tase 10-Year-Old Autistic Child.’ The facts of the case will be buried way down in the story. We’re going to be crushed. No one cares we just got hit with a table or a chair.”

Enter the C.A.R.E. Program
After that call, Officer McCarthy met with Chief Meloy to discuss the idea that the department should start think differently about responding to subjects like Elgin. Soon thereafter, these two heroes created the Children And Residents Encounter (C.A.R.E.) program.

The initiative is simple. Families of special needs individuals — it began with ASD, autistic, Asperger’s, and the like, but now also induces Alzheimer’s — register with the department. They fill out a 17-question form and sign a release waiver enabling the department to put that information in the communications center database.

The form captures name, address, and the individual’s specific mental and/or neural health condition. More importantly, though, it captures information on the special needs individual’s “trigger issues” and some of the calming techniques unique to that individual.

Officer McCarthy now knows that for Elgin, those techniques are a bear hug and calmly telling him how he can call his mom. For someone else, it would be a totally different combination of tactics.

For an ASD subject attracted to water, that information is noted. Officers responding to a call about that person going missing would then know to not only go to the individual’s home, but also to the bodies of water they know are nearby.

Chief Meloy said, “It would be nice to have that information available ahead of time so we can prepare appropriately. We can keep our officer safety tactics in place, but we’re not escalating something that doesn’t need to be escalated.”

About halfway into the session, Officer McCarthy preempted the question about this database that had been rattling around in my head: Aren’t there HIPAA issues involved when you gather and subsequently broadcast information on medical diagnoses?

“We are not governed by HIPAA,” McCarthy said. “I’ve read through the sections. We are providing an emergency service, plus by signing that waiver, caregivers know that information is getting broadcast over the radio or on the computers inside the car.”

More Than Just a Database
As I have written many times before, people on the ASD spectrum frequently exhibit behaviors which can attract the attention of law enforcement, and yet they’re totally different from your typical “frequent flier.” Furthermore, ASD individuals are highly likely to be the victims of all manner of criminal activity — from bullying to robbery to sexual assault — but are unlike your ordinary victim.

Furthermore, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate a dramatic increase in the number of children on the ASD spectrum. CDC said in a 2012 report that one in 88 children are on the spectrum — they had previously estimated ASD being observed in one in 110 children.

Consequently, the C.A.R.E. initiative is far more than just information stored in a database. It’s about building positive, productive relationships in the community — interpersonal contacts with special needs individuals and their families whom you’re highly likely to encounter on a call for service.

The department just held their fourth annual C.A.R.E. initiative event. From its inception, it’s essentially been National Night Out for the special needs community. The PD brings out every type of vehicle that they have. They bring in officers and vehicles from surrounding agencies.

“We asked them to wear all the different uniforms they’d wear in service to their community — whether they be the motorcycle officer, the SWAT officer, or the bike officer — wear it and represent and allow those folks to see you,” Chief Meloy said.

They bring in NGOs like the YMCA and Easter Seals to have tables full of brochures. There are volunteers taking pictures for the IDs given to families in the program, and volunteers to sign up new families.

“And of course,” Chief joked, “there’s food, which brings everybody out.”

Minimal Costs, Maximum Returns
Given the budgetary constraints for many agencies, the first (or perhaps the second) question most police leaders will ask when faced with adding a new program to the organizational chart is, “What will this cost?”

Chief Meloy explained, “Some might say, ‘I don’t have the time to do that. I don’t have the manpower, I don’t have the funds. I can’t just turn the street upside down to do a week of training.’ We do a lot of this in just our six-minute roll call training every day. We have a roll call training calendar and we work this in, just as a reminder for our police officers.”

Surely the event will have to cost money, right? Nope.

“Almost everything is donated,” McCarthy said. “Maybe you might have a few cops pitch in ten or fifteen dollars to get a couple of things.”

In Colerain, local merchants are more than happy to donate burgers, pizza, sodas, and cookies. This may be because given the numbers of special needs folks in the United States, just about everyone is one or two degrees of separation from somebody like Elgin. Regardless, you know that the good will of the people in your community can occasionally surprise you. This will be one of those occasions.

Finally, the event can be largely staffed by volunteers. If you have a Citizens Academy, graduates of that program are perfect candidates.

Yes, you will have to devote some on-duty hours to the program, but as we all know, the statement “I’m a cop, not a social worker” doesn’t cut it anymore. Many of the social services in your jurisdiction are either whittled down to bare bones or scuttled altogether, causing cops to handle issues those groups would have handled five or ten years ago.

It’s the Right Thing to Do
“The only disappointing thing in all of this is that we should have been doing it 20 years ago,” Chief Meloy said. “It just makes sense, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Meloy then pointed his finger directly at Officer McCarthy and added, “It took a special perspective to make it happen. It took him, that day, to be dispatched to that home, to say ‘We gotta change the game. We gotta do something differently’.”

Officer McCarthy won’t tell you this, so I will. He’s won numerous community awards for his effort spearheading this program. I will personally nominate Officer McCarthy for another award this spring.

Chief Meloy won’t tell you this, so I will. He’s a visionary in both intellect and practical execution. I’ve been fortunate to meet some tremendous police leaders, and Chief Meloy is on a very short list of ‘tops.’

Both of these men want to give you all the tools and resources you need to get your own C.A.R.E. program up and running in your community.

“We’ll give you everything you need to start,” the chief said in conclusion. “We like to share. Take this and make it yours by making it yours. Put your name on it. Take credit for it,” he said.

For further information, email me and I will pass your communique along to Officer McCarthy and Chief Meloy.

Thanks, gentlemen, for everything you do.

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