New Tool Helps Police Tailor Response To Those With Special Needs

BRUNSWICK, Maine — When Freya Colella’s older son had “a meltdown” last month and barricaded himself inside his bedroom, she called the Brunswick police for help.

Before moving to Brunswick last winter, Colella had learned not to call the police when the nearly 12-year-old boy lost control because police in the southern Maine community where the family formerly lived “just made it worse,” she said.

But this time, when her son used the kitchen table to block his bedroom door, leaving the house looking like “a tornado hit from the inside,” Colella called the non-emergency police line and told them, “I’m having an issue here.”
Communications Officer Jeff Lajoie answered the call, and immediately looked up the woman’s son in the department’s new Developmental Disabilities Database, where Colella had registered her two sons earlier in May.

As Officer Will Brown headed to the home, Lajoie sent him information about various medical issues Colella had alerted them to that could cause “meltdowns,” as well as triggers that could make the situation even worse.

Colella’s son is afraid of the police, so Brown turned off the lights and siren. When he arrived, Brown, who graduated from the police academy only a year ago, stood at the bedroom door and talked about NASCAR and soccer, calming the boy and helping him through an episode of a condition that in the past had resulted in less pleasant encounters with law enforcement.

Before he left, he gave Colella his card, with the days and hours he works written on the back.

“Will said, ‘We don’t want him to be afraid of the police,’” Colella said. “He said to call him on the days he’s here and if he’s not busy, he could come kick around the ball or play with the lights on the cruiser.”

In the past, according to Colella, police officers in another community put her younger son, who is on the autism spectrum, in “a safe hold,” which she said is simply a trigger for children with sensory processing disorder. Once an officer told her, “He should be going to juvie (a youth detention center).”

“We have very little training at the (police) academy about this,” said Brunswick Police Detective Rich Cutliffe, who developed Brunswick’s program. “If someone walks away from you or doesn’t make eye contact, (an officer) could take that as a sign of aggression, and handle it as if the person was not following a direct order … and then you find out they have a developmental disability. You think, ‘If I had known, I would have handled this a lot differently.’”

To read the rest of this article, published in Disability Scoop, please click here.