GROTON — The Groton Police Department is launching a new database to aid officers interacting with individuals with autism and disabilities.
The Citizens At Risk Database, or CARD system, stores information about individuals who are on the autism spectrum or have handicaps or other disabilities. The system is voluntary – the individuals or their guardians fill out a form listing home address, physical characteristics and emergency contact information.
For people on the autism spectrum, the form includes spaces where people can list an individual’s likes and dislikes, atypical behaviors, things that calm them, and whether they have other risk factors, like being attracted to water or having a seizure disorder.
“When you’ve made that decision to put your loved one [in the system],” said Roger Kizer, “be as detailed as you think you need to be. Be overly detailed.” Kizer is the information technology manager for the town of Stonington and the person responsible for developing the system,
Groton’s database is patterned on a system that Kizer helped develop in Stonington in 2017.
Known as CASS (Citizens with Autism Safety System), Stonington’s system is a GIS-based system that stores information about individuals in the community who are on the autism spectrum.
Participating in either system is voluntary and the information is encrypted and secured by a password.
Beth Reel, co-executive director of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, said that privacy is key, especially for individuals with autism, whose information, she said, is often shared without their consent.
“I feel it has to be a very protected list, very confidential,” she said. “We need to protect the privacy of every individual.”
Groton Chief of Police Mike Spellman said the system can help officers if someone with dementia or on the autism spectrum goes missing by providing the department with the location of friends’ houses or places where the individual might go.
Officer Bobby Harris, who has a 22-year-old son with autism, agrees.
“When you have a family member with special needs, your greatest fear is them getting out,” said Harris. He said that autistic people sometimes struggle to understand their environment, and that members of the community often don’t know how to relate to these individuals.
The initial push for the system in Stonington came after Crystal Wilcox, a resident of Pawcatuck, had an incident with her son, Billy, who is now 24 years old, and is autistic. Five or six years ago, she said, they were preparing to go out to dinner on an evening when they didn’t normally eat out. Upset by the change in routine, Billy became visibly distressed, screaming and crying. A woman at the senior housing center up the road called the police.
When the officer came, Billy, who had started to calm down, became even more upset. Crystal said that she “strong-armed” the officer and told him to “back off.” Once the officer realized what was going on, he tried to diffuse the situation. Although she had no problem with the officer’s behavior, Crystal was furious that the woman had called the police.
“I don’t need my autistic son to be afraid of the police,” she said. “I need him, if he is lost or in danger, to seek them out.”
Wilcox began wondering how they could create a way for first responders to know in advance whether they were arriving at a scene where someone on the autism spectrum would be present. She spoke with Spellman, then a selectman in Stonington, and together with Kizer and the Town of Stonington Human Services department, they came up with the CASS system.
Spellman said it’s critical that officers be prepared for situations where they might confront individuals with disabilities.
“One thing you don’t want is that you had a negative interaction with someone that you didn’t realize,” said Spellman.
Spellman said he’s working to get his officers trained through ALEC, an organization that teaches first responders how to approach individuals with autism. Officer Harris is an ALEC trainer, and he said that having knowledge in advance “helps us not overreact whenever we go to a call.”
Harris says that officers who work in a community where there are special needs individuals should make an effort to get to know them. “They never forget,” he said. “If you talk to my child, my child would never forget you.”
He also teaches officers to avoid certain behaviors that can trigger these individuals, like setting off sirens in the vicinity. Dogs can also be a trigger – he suggests that K-9 officers park half a block away.
Wilcox said she thinks people might be reluctant to sign onto the system because they don’t want people to know that their child or relative is autistic.
“Unfortunately, sometimes people don’t take advantage of these things until there’s some sort of a tragedy,” said Wilcox.
Harris, however, said that several families with autistic members have already contacted him to sign up for the system. He said he expects to hear from more people after the holidays.
In a letter, Spellman said that the department was updating its computer system to accommodate the program, and that their goal is to have it up and running by January 18. Funding for the updated system came from a private donor, Jim Streeter of Groton.
People who are interested in signing up can contact Officer Harris, Officer Contreras, or Executive Assistant Juliette Parker at 860-445-2451.