How technology can teach police to de-escalate encounters with the disabled

By September 21, 2017

After a nine-month pilot program, the police department in St. Paul, Minnesota, has signed a two-year contract with local developer VariAware to help officers effectively manage situations involving individuals with autism and other hard-to-detect disabilities.

VariAware, a Minneapolis-based company, developed the Vulnerable Individuals Technology Assisted Location Service (VITALS) application in attempt to “[create] safer interactions between law enforcement and people with behavioral, mental health, physical and developmental conditions.”

Developed with the help of the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) and the local police department, the application intends to help officers effectively manage encounters with individuals with these disabilities — a problem that has historically proven to be a difficult task for police officers, as well as a very stressful experience for the other individuals involved.

Author, consultant, and autism training specialist,  Emily Iland, points out some of the things that can go wrong during a police encounter with an autistic individual.

“People who commit crimes should be punished for their crimes, but there’s this mitigating circumstance of what autism is and how it interferes with all kinds of processes — understanding right from wrong, following instructions, communicating with officers, cooperating,” she says. “There’s a lot of different ways that having autism interferes in a police encounter.”

Take for example the 17-year-old autistic boy who was mishandled by transit police in St. Paul in 2015. According to reports, the teen was resisting arrest and attempted to strike an officer, causing officers to react by forcefully restraining him, and leading to his injury.

Problems such as this are quite common and often avoidable — and are at the heart of what VITALS intends to fix.

How does it work?

Families or caregivers of the vulnerable individuals subscribe to the service for $9.95 per month, and start by uploading their personal information to the app — including demographic information, information about their disability, and advice on how to best handle an encounter with them.

The vulnerable individuals then carry small bluetooth devices that signal officers within a 30 to 80 foot radius to provide them all of the necessary information to effectively handle the encounter.

When officers are within the radius of a user carrying the bluetooth device, they are immediately notified with the individual’s profile, which includes an image of the person along with the relevant information regarding his/her disability — including conditions, medications, triggers, de-escalation techniques, videos or images the person may respond to, medical information, and caregiver contact information.

“To have that knowledge, immediately at their disposal, that says ‘Wow, look, it’s Jake. He has autism. Oh, look, I can play the Aladdin song and it will calm him down.’ And before he can even get to the point where he can raise his hand or grab somebody or take off, if you were to say to him one of these de-escalation techniques that we have on his app, it will turn him around just like that,” said Dawn Brasch, senior director of the Autism Society of Minnesota.

According to the CDC, one in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder — a fact that underlines the importance of such technology.

The two-year contract with the police department will be at zero cost to the department for its help in testing the application during the pilot program. Other police departments or first-response teams interested in using the technology will be charged $5 per month per user.

According to officer Robert Zink of the St. Paul department, the application should be rolled out department-wide by mid-September.