SALT LAKE CITY — Sometimes a police officer taking a few moments to observe an individual's behavior can make the difference between resolving a problem or creating a major incident.
“People on the autism spectrum often engage in behaviors that can be misinterpreted,” said UTA Transit Police Chief Fred Ross. “They won’t look you in the eye, they won’t talk to you and it can mimic the behavior of someone who is trying to elude the police.”
To help on those situations, the Utah Transit Authority has implemented a program to train all of its transit police officers to recognize “invisible disabilities” such as autism that often influences the behavior of individuals who use mass transportation.
Ross, who was a deputy chief with Salt Lake City Police prior to taking over as head of the UTA department, said he first developed the program in his previous position and brought it along to the new department. He explained that as part of their initial training, each officer receives specialized training to identify and assist riders with autism and other types of disabilities.
"We need to know what those signs are, seizures or eye avoidance and all those other things that come with people on the autism spectrum, so we can make sure that we're dealing with them correctly," he said. "We want to make sure that we treat them with the utmost respect and (show) that we're there to help them."
He noted that every officer in the department wears a small blue puzzle piece on the lapel of their uniform to indicate to someone with those types of disabilities the officer does understand their needs and is there to help. The training teaches officers how to distinguish between riders with disabilities who may need assistance and those intentionally evading police or who simply refuse to follow police commands, he added.
Ross said the training proved critical last year when a young man with nonverbal autism ran away from home and made his way onto the UTA system. Transit officers were able to coax the man off the train, call his family, then keep him safe and calm until his mother was able to pick him up.
Ross said the training is being shared with all UTA regional bus managers and may eventually be shared with all UTA bus operators as well.
“It would be foolish of us to not be trained on every possible aspect to be better guardians and ambassadors for people with disabilities,” he said.
UTA Police Sgt. John Pearce said he has a "very personal interest" in the training because his son, Justin, 21, was diagnosed with autism in the second grade. He said his experience with his son and other people along the autism spectrum have shown how important proper training can be for law enforcement officers who may come in contact with individuals with cognitive disabilities.
"They can be mistaken for (individuals in) a drug-induced mania or an alcohol stupor and the way they would get treated would be very different," he said. "Sometimes we would get a call of someone being combative or resisting and more officers would come to assist. Cars with sirens and strobe (lights) would come and send someone with autism into a meltdown."
He said learning to recognize the signs of people with autism can help prevent unwanted consequences and escalating interactions with police.
"The main thing is to slow down," he said. "A lot of us want to take charge like we're trained. But if the situation can play out for just a second, then you can see that something is 'a little off.'"
Noting that people with diabetes, autism or other medical issues can sometimes present as a person behaving erratically, taking the time to evaluate the situation can frequently help resolve them more peacefully, he said.
Justin Pearce said having officers trained to understand how to approach people with autism is comforting to know.3 comments on this story
"Handling the situation less aggressively and letting the individual know what you're trying to do will help them be more grateful. If they melt down, then they become completely unpredictable," he said. "Some might become violent (or) some might shut down. You don't know what could happen and it could very well result in injury or death."
UTA has shared its training program with a few other local police departments, but getting even more departments trained to recognize invisible disabilities is something Justin Pearce would like to see more of.
"Once you know what to look for it becomes more common sense," he said. "Once you get used to it, you can tell if this guy is 'being fishy' or having a meltdown."