Police officers undergo new, specialized training to deal with autistic citizens in Clinton County

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DeWitt City Police vehicle provided by Jason Dunn

DeWitt City Police vehicle provided by Jason Dunn

By Jason Dunn
Clinton County Chatter Staff Reporter

Police officers in Clinton County are undergoing new, advanced training to handle autism-related situations and other circumstances.

City of DeWitt Chief of Police Bruce Ferguson has been charged with the responsibility of spearheading the training.

“I am going to be training the entire county in autism safety. So I’ll do all of the police agencies in the county here. We want to make sure that officers know that if someone doesn’t react like they should, the first thing to make sure is that they don’t have some type of impairment that would cause them to behave that way,” he said.

“If they’re talking to someone with special needs, we want our officers to consider that,” he said. “We want to be very careful that they don’t put hands on [them] and take them to the ground [if they don’t have to].”

Ferguson, whose daughter has autism, is also on the Board of Directors for the Autism Society of Michigan.

“We need to refocus to make sure we include how to train [officers] to deal with these kids,” he said.

Pushing the agenda of autism education is something he refuses to shy away from, stating that his officers, first and foremost, have the responsibility of treating potential disputes with people who have special needs, delicately.

“Most of the mental health treatment and housing is community-based, which encompasses autism. Autistic folks are 1 in 68. One in 54 for boys. They think that 1 in 45 people is on the autism spectrum, now. We’re seeing these kids in our schools, too. I’ve got four group homes and five schools. One in 6 kids have some type of disability,” he said.

He went on to highlight a scenario where delicate tactics were needed to stop a potential drowning of an 18-year-old autistic boy.

“In one of our group homes, we had a young man who was eloping and ventured into a nearby neighbor’s pond\,” he said. “Well, he was just standing in the neighbor’s pond and he was stripping naked and they didn’t know if he knew how to swim or not.

“So, we get called and we’re already looking for him [he was already reported missing]. So we go to the pond and get him out. We have so many bodies of water in the city’s limits, too. And most of these kids don’t fear getting in the water.

“They don’t have the same cognitive responses to fear, pain and cold that we would normally have. So, they get in the water and [sometimes] drown.”

Incidents like this, along with recommendations of surrounding police colleagues, led to his insertion as the county-wide trainer.

In regards to the handling of autism-related cases in St. Johns, Police Chief Kyle Knight mentioned that training has been given to his officers, but it is outdated.

“Five years ago, before I was here, we actually had formal training to teach officers how to settle disputes involving people with special needs,” he said. “We actually have quite a few people here in St. Johns that have special needs.

“I actually think though, that we need to update the training because situations change in regards to people with special needs and we need to make sure that we are equipped to handle them.”

To effectively police situations involving people with special needs, Cathy Gladstone, a member of the Autism Society of Michigan, believes that officers have to be “patient, able to communicate, in order to deescalate the situations.”

Anne Carpenter, also a member of the Autism Society of Michigan who happens to have autism, goes a step further in regards to highlighting why police officers need special training.

“Police officers should communicate well. As a person with autism, they may not understand police officers’ instructions, or how to effectively respond to them,” she said, “And [on the other hand] police officers have to realize that they too can misunderstand. Sometimes people with special needs look like they’re on drugs or alcohol, but they’re not.”

The training will be completed in the coming months.

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