How specialized training on dementia can help cops save lives

Traditional tools police officers use to control at-risk subjects are often ineffective for those suffering from dementia


More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Every day an Alzheimer’s-related death occurs.

Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are diligently working to increase knowledge and awareness of Alzheimer's and dementia persons.

Today, there are a variety of resources and tools available to law enforcement communities. Awareness, training and education are the keys to successful interactions with those suffering from Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

Individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia can experience memory loss, inability to recognize their family, friends or familiar places. They can also become irrational, confused and combative as a fearful response to perceived dangers in what is happening around them. It is because of these possible scenarios that law enforcement awareness, training and education are critical.

Awareness, training and education are the keys to successful interactions with those suffering from Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.
Awareness, training and education are the keys to successful interactions with those suffering from Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

Several community and law enforcement-based programs have been successfully implemented recently. More than 40 states in the U.S. are currently involved in developing dementia-related education and training plans specifically designed for both first responders and members of the community. Most programs are using identification or tracking devices worn or carried by individuals diagnosed with the disease.

Nationwide Project Lifesaver Program

Law enforcement personnel are working to turn potentially tragic lost and wandering incidents into positive experiences for both the caregivers and patients. The National Project Lifesaver Program operates in 41 states through over 550 agencies with a 100 percent location success rate, with each lost person found alive.

One of many examples worth highlighting is the Citrus Heights (Calif.) Police Department’s partnership with the Nationwide Project Lifesaver Program. The PD is offering the program free of charge to all city residents who are registered caretakers of individuals who suffer from dementia, autism or other cognitive conditions which may lead to wandering away from homes and caregivers.

The Project Lifesaver participants are fitted with a waterproof transmitter device which allows officers to track the individuals should they become disoriented and lost. Agencies and officers are equipped with devices which can connect with the wearer through radio waves that provide the wearer’s location.

Chela Cottrell, a dispatcher with Citrus Heights PD, is heavily involved with the program and very happy with the results.

“A major benefit of the program for the participants is that we go out to the clients’ homes once a month to change the transmitter battery,” said Cottrell.  “During that visit we conduct a mini welfare check on the participant, caregivers and family.” 

This welfare check provides the opportunity for offering additional resources and support where needed to the participant and family.

Alzheimer’s Aware Program

The United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance has funded a national initiative called Alzheimer’s Aware.

This program is designed to be replicated in local jurisdictions to create a positive impact on the welfare and safety of those in the community with cognitive conditions.

Establishing an Alzheimer’s Aware program in your community will help your department, bring overall community awareness to Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and help keep those affected safe when they wander.

GPS devices

iTraq is a credit card sized location tracking device which uses cell towers to determine location.  The technology features a “Guard Mode” in which the caregiver can specify a map radius and receive alerts should the device be taken outside of the radius.

The PocketFinder program offers a few compact-sized options for GPS tracking. The data returned to the caregiver will show a GPS location and an address, the distance away from the wearer, speed and altitude of the device. 

Wandering and lost

The number of encounters between persons with dementia and law enforcement is increasing. Law enforcement calls for service that typically involve a patient can include wandering, shoplifting, auto accidents, indecent exposure, false reports or even suicide.

Frequent movement, pacing and restless behaviors are often observed in patients with  dementia. These behaviors, however, can evolve into the patient becoming wandering and lost. Patients frequently wander due to confusion as they may be looking for home, even though they are home. The patient may be trying to flee from a perceived threat such as a particular noise or exchange with a complete stranger, which in reality is a caregiver. Boredom often causes restlessness in patients and they will walk off as a result.

The power associated with the law enforcement uniform is vast in the eyes of the public. When contacting a person with a cognitive disability like dementia, a law enforcement officer has the power to rescue, protect, hospitalize, incarcerate or transport at will while the caregivers, family and public are watching and assuming officers will have the patient’s best interest in mind. 

The traditional tools law enforcement uses to control at-risk situations are often ineffective with a  dementia patient. Several organizations are readily available to provide law enforcement and first responder personnel additional tools to deal with the cognitively disabled population when in crisis.

It is important to continue increasing awareness for first responders through specialized education on cognitive diseases such as dementia in order to save time, money and ultimately a life. 

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