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Keene police seek help to better serve people with special needs

Keene Sentinel - 6/18/2018

June 18--When police or other first responders arrive at a house, it helps to know if a resident has trouble moving or communicating, or some other trait that could complicate the encounter.

Firefighters, for example, need to know if a person inside is bedridden and immobile. Police can switch off sirens if they're aware a child is sensitive to light and sound. An officer who knows ahead of time that a kid doesn't speak can find a different way to communicate, instead of repeating useless commands.

That's according to Al St. Aubin, the Keene Police Department's dispatch supervisor.

"The more information we have at our hands to assist, the better we can help the public," he said.

For that reason, the department is asking parents or authorized representatives to tell them about people who could be considered "at risk," including seniors with Alzheimer's, people with physical disabilities and children with autism or developmental disabilities.

The department started working on the initiative about two months ago, St. Aubin said, after a Keene resident who has loved ones with autism asked how to make police officers aware of that.

Keene police announced the program in a June 7 Facebook post. Those interested in registering can fill out a form, available on the city's website, and return it to the department.

The form lists a range of reasons someone might want to register, including dementia, mobility impairment, difficulty seeing or hearing, autism and reliance on a service animal. St. Aubin said the list is not exhaustive.

"There could be 100 different scenarios," he said.

The form asks for a basic description and emergency contacts, as well as additional information that could be important in an emergency, including specific phobias; whether the person is verbal or nonverbal; the best way to communicate with him or her; whether he or she can walk; and places he or she is familiar with and might wander to.

The program is voluntary and depends on parents or other authorized representatives choosing to share information with police, St. Aubin said. The information will be kept confidential and shared only with other local first responders, such as firefighters or EMTs, as needed, he said.

"Anytime you have any information in advance that's going to help you prepare for what you need to do ... it's just important," said Marlborough Fire Chief John Manning.

Manning said dispatchers with Southwestern N.H. District Fire Mutual Aid, which sends out fire and medical calls in the region, sometimes have information about a person or household they give to first responders.

That could include knowledge that a person is uncomfortable with strangers, for instance, along with information like the presence of oxygen tanks or an aggressive pet, he said.

Police registries of at-risk persons are becoming more common, but remain relatively rare, said Matt Brown, a retired federal parole officer who conducts autism safety training for law enforcement agencies and has developed a detailed autism registration form for use by first responders.

In a 2014 study of 11 monitoring sites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 1.7 percent of 8-year-olds in those places had autism spectrum disorder.

"People with autism in particular have a lot of behaviors that we can easily misinterpret," said Brown, who is based in Portland, Maine. That could include avoiding eye contact or not responding to verbal instructions during a traffic stop, he said.

People with autism may react to a stressful encounter with police by "shutting down, taking off or becoming combative," he said. Typically, officers would grow suspicious, escalating the situation. But if a dispatcher can tell the officers that the person has autism, they can approach the interaction differently, Brown said.

In an emergency, specific knowledge about a child with autism can prove crucial, according to Brown. In one situation he heard about, a police officer helped a kid calm down by bringing up potato chips, which, the officer learned, was his favorite subject to chat about.

The Keene form also asks about "favored places" a person might wander off to. That's important for finding missing people with dementia, among others, St. Aubin said. "A lot of people in that situation will wander to somewhere they're familiar with in the past."

Some people may hesitate to share personal information with police, according to Manning and Brown. Brown said that in his experience, demonstrating to the community that officers are equipped to deal with children with autism can encourage parents to come forward. "A program like this is great, but it should go hand in hand with training," he said.

The Keene department has not trained officers in dealing with autism, but is looking into that possibility, St. Aubin said.

The Keene Police Department form can be accessed online at

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or Follow him on Twitter at @PCunoBoothKS


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