St. Paul police awarded for Cops Autism Response Education program

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As the parent of a child with autism, Charlene Wilford used to worry about her son's interactions with police. Now, she says officers in St. Paul are trained to handle Devonte Ray-Burns with care.

"I don't have to worry if my child walks out the door or runs away; right now I know he will be safe," Wilford said.

The St. Paul Police Department started the Cops Autism Response Education program a few years ago after a teenager on the spectrum was roughed up by Metro Transit officers on a light rail platform.

CARE trains officers on how to approach people with autism by doing things like turning off their lights and sirens. The group also helped develop the Vitals app, which provides profiles of people with "invisible disabilities" to first responders and police if they come within 80 feet.

"Understanding their sensitivity to noise, sound, taking their time…understanding behaviors that aren't a typical that may express themselves as criminal behavior and they are not," said Officer Robert Zink.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services gave CARE a Circle of Excellence Award, which recognizes programs that help people meet their basic needs so they can live in dignity and achieve their highest potential.

"It’s really important work, work that has been historically, I think, under-addressed in our community - and also innovative," said Commissioner Emily Piper with the Department of Human Services.

Now instead of being afraid of police officers, Wilford says her son is comfortable with them and that makes all the difference in the world.

"As long as you work with them and give them that love; they feel all that and that means a lot to them," Wilford said.

CARE says several other police departments are lined up to receive their autism training, but they eventually hope to get enough funding to train every officer in the state.