Increased outreach as St. Paul police autism response program grows

A program developed by St. Paul Police to improve interactions with individuals with autism continues to grow, as more departments and more families take advantage of the program.

“Their behaviors give mixed messages to officers,” said Officer Robert Zink. “And I’m blunt with parents, because generally with kids on the spectrum, our first contact with them is not going to be perfect.”

Officer Robert Zink has two sons who are on the spectrum. He has become a huge component of the department’s Cops Autism Response Education (CARE) program, which started four years ago to help officers communicate with these individuals.

Since then, the program has been recognized by the state. It has also received attention worldwide, as other departments look to St. Paul for guidance on the issue.

Wednesday, individuals with autism and their family members were invited to attend a class with Officer Zink where they learned about the program. Zink says the class teaches these families what officers are learning, and is the first step in getting involved.

“We can teach the cops all these things but we also have to have the parents so they understand what the police are doing when they’re responding to these calls,” he said. 

Six years ago, Linda Huber’s son was allegedly assaulted by police after they mistook him for being intoxicated and dangerous.

“Police shined their light on him, he got nervous went to run home,” said Huber. “Police chased him and it turned into a huge debacle. He got maced and kicked as hard as he could, according to the police report.”

At the time, police had no idea that he was on the spectrum. Today, she volunteers with CARE and helps officers understand the behaviors and triggers.

“At least what happened to him, we can try and prevent from happening to another kid,” she said. 

Another huge component of the program’s success has been the introduction and implementation of an app specifically designed to identify people with special needs.

Vulnerable Individuals Technology Assisted Location Services, or VITALS, sends a signal from a beacon, card or cell phone with information about the person with autism to an officer’s phone when they get within about 40 feet. Zink says the app has had great success and is now being used by other departments as well.