It's a parent's worst nightmare. Your child is off somewhere in the world without you and something goes wrong. With children who have developmental disabilities or mental illness, something is bound to go wrong at some point. So you craft action plans. You practice what to do. You get their care providers on the same page. You hope your action plan will work if and when needed. Many times it will. But there's always the possibility that one time, in some ordinary place doing some ordinary thing, something will go awry. Then what?
The Anchorage Police Department has a volunteer training program to help its officers make the best possible decisions when encountering people with autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, depression or any other condition that can affect a person's behavior and how well he or she might respond to police.
For parents, the worst nightmare isn't the meltdown. It's how other people will react, and then how your child will react to them. Will the others -- store clerks, passersby, waiters, managers -- be well-meaning helpers who unknowingly muck things up even more? Or maybe they will be disrupters and increase stress and tension as they try to firmly get matters under control. What then? What if the police show up and rattle off a bunch of questions or issue orders at your child, who can't handle being addressed in that way? Will your child run off? Lash out? What if an officer tries to put their hands on your child, who cannot tolerate touch?
The worst nightmare is that someone will get hurt.
Maybe it's getting pepper-sprayed, which happened to a 28-year-old autistic man in Kodiak recently who'd been suspected of trying to break into a car. His mother told KTUU she thinks the witnesses and police misunderstood what her son, fascinated by cars, was actually doing that day on his way to get the mail. In the body cam video of the incident, the man can be heard saying, "I'm sorry ... I want to go home ... Please!" More than once, an officer can be heard sternly saying, "Stop resisting!" With the man's body pinned against a car, one of the two responding officers pepper-sprays the man in the face.
But it could be even worse. A 50-year-old man suffering a psychotic episode while in police custody in Denver in November died of asphyxiation -- the result of officers trying to gain control over him. In 2012, Chicago police fatally shot a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome during an encounter at the boy's home in which the boy, who was known to police, wielded a knife.
And yet, it was not these high-profile, distressing incidents that were on one mother's mind when she reached out for help.
Instead, it was an episode that happened during what should have been a routine Friday outing.
Mallory Hamilton found herself confronted with a host of "what if" fears after her teenage daughter Harley, a high school senior who has Down syndrome and autism, got "stuck" earlier this year at the Tikahtnu Regal Cinemas in East Anchorage. For reasons only Harley knows, that day she went to see a movie like she does every Friday, something went wrong.
As Hamilton tells it, Harley, who understands a lot of what's said to her but is herself not exceptionally verbal, had bought a ticket and made it into the theater's main hallway, but for some reason couldn't get herself into the theater itself to sit down and watch the show. Harley sat against the wall, flipped the pink lanyard she carries to soothe herself and muttered. It made the staff at the theater uncomfortable enough that they eventually threatened to call the police if Harley's aide didn't swiftly prod her out of there. The aide, worried about the escalation of adding police to the mix, called Harley's mother, who could not get there within the five-minute deadline the theater manager had imposed.
Regal Cinemas did not return calls asking for its take on the incident.
Harley's aide got her mother on the phone and she was able to talk Harley into leaving the theater. But a call like that is the last line of defense against upping the ante, and parents and other caretakers will one day be unavailable at some crucial moment over a lifetime. It's inevitable. The close call got Hamilton thinking about all of the poor outcomes that could happen if her daughter did ever end up in a situation where police had been called to deal with her. "You just don't have any idea as a parent what is going to happen. It's your worst nightmare," Hamilton said.
Hamilton asked a friend, Angie Fraize, an Anchorage police officer who serves with her on the Governor's Council for Disabilities and Special Education, what to do. Fraize helped coordinate a coffee date for Harley with her husband, Matt, who is also an Anchorage police officer. The goal? Get Harley to understand police as helpers, as safe people she can trust.
"The face of law enforcement is changing with the times. But we have to. We have to show people that we are human. That we are dads and moms," Angie Fraize said over coffee last week. She grew up with an uncle who had Down syndrome, and one of her two daughters has the condition.
Matt Fraize, a large man who once played football for the University of Washington, showed up in uniform to the coffee date with Harley. He asked if he could sit with Harley and her mother, who suggested, "Harley would love for a handsome man in uniform to sit across from her."
Harley hugged officer Fraize, beaming during the half-hour visit that ended with a ride home, without Mom, in the police car. During a second meeting, Harley tried to tickle officer Fraize, nuzzled his side, gave a friendly head-butt and a quick kiss to his right shoulder before they walked over to his patrol car, holding hands.
"A lot of us are parents of kids with special needs. And so we get it. We have the same fears for our children," Matt Fraize said.
"We have to be empathetic and compassionate in this field," explained officer Ruth Adolf, program coordinator for the department's Crisis Intervention Team, a certification earned after 40 hours of training. Adolf is the only full-time CIT officer on duty. But on any given shift, there should be at least two CIT-trained officers available, said APD spokeswoman Jennifer Castro. Ninety-six of the department's 367 sworn officers have received the voluntary training. More than half of the staff that handles incoming calls, 33 of 52 dispatchers, are also CIT-trained.
"It's a huge eye-opener to the officers to see what a person with mental illness is going through to navigate the system," Adolf said. The training teaches officers "to see that there is something going on and get (that person) to the next level of care," she said.
Between October 2013 and November 2014, CIT officers handled 5,336 calls that could be classified as responding to a suicide or mental health issue. People with developmental disabilities fall under the mental health classification for APD's record-keeping system. Still, the numbers likely don't show the full impact. Calls initially coded as crimes that turn out to instead be mental health-related may not always get documented under mental health, Adolf said.
CIT intervention might mean sitting with a person for an extra five minutes. Or loaning them a phone to call a friend or family member. Or taking them to a mental health provider instead of to jail. It requires active listening and creative, compassionate responses. Adolf calls these "think-outside-the-box" solutions -- approaches that function as a pre-arrest jail diversion program. Provided of course, crimes have not been committed. Even then, there's an option to be steered into mental health court, which can help address underlying issues and promote accountability.
Adolf spoke of one client she runs into regularly, who has a habit of heading to the top floor of a parking garage when she is stressed. Because Adolf knows her, she's able to talk with her and de-escalate the situation. In another situation, Adolf became aware that a woman had been posting suicidal thoughts on Facebook. Worried friends called police. Adolf and her team tracked the woman down and encouraged her to get help. Later, the woman thanked Adolf for taking her to the hospital.
"That let me know I did my job that day and I might have saved a life," Adolf said. "I want people to know that the police are there to help them."
And that is the message Hamilton, the Fraizes and Adolf want families to hear. That you can always ask for a CIT dispatcher. And you can always ask that a CIT officer respond to a situation. It's what they're there for. For Hamilton, getting the chance to give Harley a positive interaction with police before a potentially negative one made all the difference.
"I could not have asked for a better experience. They took the time and gave us the opportunity for peace of mind, which for me is huge," Hamilton said.
Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or on Twitter.
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