Police taking steps to better serve vulnerable and at-risk residents

  • Alyssa Raxter Courtesy

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 3/10/2021 6:20:52 PM

Police Officer Alyssa Raxter recalls a few years ago when the department responded to a report of an elderly woman walking aimlessly along busy Route 11A. The woman told the officer who responded that she lived in Massachusetts but was otherwise vague and seemed confused. The woman agreed to go with the officer back to the police station, where police were able to determine – after an hour of more questioning – she was a local resident who suffered from dementia and had wandered away from her home.

Raxter said if the officer had known the woman’s condition at the outset, police would have been able to return her home much sooner.

It is because of situations like this that the Gilford Police Department has launched a program, which encourages people to provide information about a child or other at-risk family member that will better prepare officers should they ever encounter them.

“This gives us another tool to produce good outcomes,” Raxter said of what the department is calling the Unique Needs Program.

The department has posted on its website a two-page form that parents or guardians can fill out with information about a person who may have a chronic mental illness, be unable to communicate, have a developmental disability, or suffer from dementia or some other form of memory loss.

On the form there is room for the person’s physical description, a photo, their medications or allergies, along with any medical conditions, as well as who to contact in case of an emergency. There is also a place to describe what fears or phobias they may have, any unusual behaviors, as well any favorite attractions or locations.

“It could be anything a parent or caregiver would want us to know ahead of time,” she said.

“They can fill as much or as little of the form as they want,” Raxter explained, stressing that the program is strictly voluntary. The program is open to all Gilford residents, as well as nonresidents who spend a lot of time in the community.

After making a follow-up call, the information will be entered into the department’s computer system so that if they encounter the person – or are dispatched to an address associated with the person – an officer will immediately know the individual’s situation and special circumstances.

The Laconia Police Department will soon have a similar program, according to Police Chief Matt Canfield.

Raxter, who serves at the department’s school resource officer, said she came up with the idea for the Unique Needs Program after having regular contact with students who are autistic or have some other disability.

“I used my experience to make an all-inclusive program,” said Raxter, who majored in psychology at UNH.

Canfield said he had been thinking a lot about initiating a process that would make officers more effective in dealing with people with autism, Down syndrome, or other developmental disabilities, and people with dementia. He said the need for such an initiative became clearer after an officer struggled to handle a situation where a person with a developmental disability created a disturbance.

“That’s not what we want,” Canfield said.

Laconia’s form will be similar to the one now in use in Gilford. Canfield expected it would be up on the department’s website by the middle of the month.

In addition to the form, Canfield said there will be special in-service training for officers on the subject of autism and other developmental disabilities, He said the training will be modeled on sessions that officers have received over the years on the subject of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Those who work in the behavioral health field say that more training of police officers in these areas is essential.

Today, new officers who go through the state’s police academy for full-time officers receive 16 hours of training about mental illness and two hours about autism. But that amount of training is fairly recent, Canfield said.

“A 20-year police officer may have had only four hours of training about mental illness,” said Ken Norton, the executive director of NAMI-NH which provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness about mental illness.

The organization is involved in the police academy training as well as the more intense 40-hour crisis intervention training in mental-health awareness and de-escalation for police and other first responders. Norton estimated that only about 10 percent of the police officers in the state have gone through the CIT program.

Smaller departments can find it difficult or unfeasible to send their officers to such programs because of the time involved.

A 2016 report from the Police Executive Research Forum found that nationwide, police academies spend a median of 58 hours on firearm training and just eight hours on de-escalation or crisis intervention.

But the knowledge gained through such training can mean the difference between a successful outcome and a tragedy.

Canfield said that if LPD knows that a person who has wandered off is autistic. they know they have to act quickly because autistic people are drawn to water, and so there is a greater risk that without timely intervention that person could drown.

Drowning is among the leading causes of death for people with autism, according to the National Autism Association.

Raxter said the in-service training at her department aims to give officers a better understanding about a whole range of behavioral issues and tools for helping people in crisis.

And those crises can be extremely challenging for police to defuse.

In New Hampshire, 45 percent of officer-involved shootings occurred when police were dealing with someone with some form of mental illness, Norton pointed out.

Canfield said additional training about behavioral issues is essential because the actions people may display can be mistaken by police as signs of intoxication or being under the influence of drugs.

“We get that a lot,” he said.

The training is also crucial because it can help police see beyond a person’s bizarre behavior.

“People with developmental disabilities are not their disabilities, first and foremost. There is so much more to them than their disabilities,” said Lori Beaudoin, executive director of ABLE NH, a grass-roots organization that deals with equity and social justice issues that affect people with disabilities.

If a person with a developmental disability is having a problem, chances are what they are doing is not criminal, Beaudoin said.

“People with disabilities get harmed because they are misunderstood,” she said.

Elizabeth Webster, who teaches the autism class at the police academy, agrees that understanding the behaviors of disabled people is critical for police.

Autistic people are seven times more likely to have encounters with law enforcement, said Webster, who has a 30-year-old son who is autistic.

“One misunderstanding can lead to tragic outcomes,” she said.

Beaudoin applauded the intention behind programs such as the one in Gilford, but said that for best outcomes, police also need to reach out to disabled people themselves and their families in their community and get their ideas of what the program aims to accomplish and how to run it.

Raxter said she hopes to use events such as National Night Out and Gilford’s Old Home Day as occasions to spread the word about the program.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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