How an Amazon wish list enabled a police department to help people with sensory sensitivity
During a time of scarce fiscal resources, thinking outside of the box can help agencies fund special projects
By John Harrelson
At their heart, law enforcement agencies are about service, but in a time of scarce fiscal resources, departments are struggling to provide even essential response. As a result, groups that may have already been underserved are in danger of falling further down the priority list.
One such group is people with sensory sensitivity. Following is a case study on how the Horry County (SC) Police Department mobilized its community to serve this group with no identified funds to accomplish this mission.
Prevalence of sensory sensitivity
As medical science has improved, so has the ability to identify and diagnose people with sensory sensitivity. Of the conditions associated with sensory sensitivity, autism is the most widely recognized. Research indicates that upwards of 90% of Autistic people have some sensory sensitivity. U.S. Census Bureau data estimates as many as one in 50 people are autistic, which means there could be as many as five million Autistic people in the country.
Autistic people fall on a broad spectrum, some with almost no outward symptoms, some who are profoundly affected. The most severely affected individuals may be nonverbal and extremely sensitive to external stimuli such as noise, lights, smells and textures. Considering the significance of the numbers of Autistic people, and the complexity this broad spectrum presents for police response, agencies must develop strategies to serve this segment of our population.
Identifying tools and strategies
The Horry County Police Department serves a large coastal section of S.C., often referred to as the Grand Strand. Horry County has a year-round population of around 350,000 according to census data and hosts over 18 million visitors in a year. Considering these numbers, and the projections for population prevalence of autism, Horry County likely has at least 6,000 Autistic residents and as many as 300,000+ visitors who might fall on the spectrum.
1. Tools: Inspired by an article featuring Clearcreek Township in Ohio, HCPD wanted to equip each of its patrol officers with a sensory toy kit. These kits are widely available and include items such as fidget spinners and textured toys. Evidence shows that such toys help those suffering from overstimulation, frequently from a sensory sensitivity, and provide the person the ability to focus and calm themselves.
2. Strategies: Identifying the toy kits was only part of the equation. The department further saw the need to supplement previous training with materials more focused on those with sensory sensitivity. Resourcing an acronym-based approach from a 2001 F.B.I. Bulletin on the topic, the department worked with the County’s Public Information Office to develop an infographic using A.U.T.I.S.M., which stands for Approach, Understand, Talk, Instruct, Seek, and Maintain (see infographic below). The materials were reinforced by a PowerPoint on the topic and distributed to officers over the department’s training software.
While the HCPD felt the kits would be handy for its officers, the question remained of how to pay for it. The agency identified the most useful deployment would be to the patrol officers. With over 170 patrol staff, the agency faced an unfunded expense of over $3,000 to kick off the program. Not wanting to hold off on a tool of such potential, and having no identified budgetary funds for it, HCPD began looking for alternatives.
This search led to a strategy used by the County’s Animal Care Center (ACC), which was recently absorbed into the police department. The ACC had many animal lovers who wished to donate goods to the Center for the care and benefit of recovered animals. The challenge was that there were many items that the Center received that they were unable to use.
The ACC staff created an Amazon wish list of specific items they knew they could use. The list was made public and shared with those interested in donating. The list allowed generous individuals to purchase the items and have them shipped to the Center.
Seeing no reason not to mimic this for the Sensory Kit project, HCPD created an Amazon account for this purpose, identified the kit components and added them to a wish list. HCPD made the list public and coordinated with the Public Information Office to push out the link via a Facebook post on the department’s Facebook page.
An overwhelming response
The initial Facebook post by the department reached over 50,000 people.
Within a matter of days, the needs of the department were not just satisfied but exceeded through the generosity of the community. So many kits were received that all of the patrol staff and criminal investigation staff were equipped and all of the County’s fire engines and ambulances got kits as well. Also, ample spare components were able to be stored for replacements.
Businesses, churches, schools and civic organizations made contributions to the project. Families and caretakers of sensory-sensitive individuals reached out and provided invaluable input that allowed HCPD to add needed components to the kits. The comment sections of all the department’s posts turned into forums of education, awareness and mutual support. Families of those affected now have a platform to communicate with the agency and other members of the public about sensory sensitivity.
The need for tools and strategies to assist those with sensory sensitivity is clear. While budgeting for such a project is the ideal approach, the lack of available funds should not deter an agency from trying to meet this or other needs of their communities. For the Horry County Police Department, this project not only provided a needed tool, it engaged the agency with their community on a whole new level, building relationships that will likely prove invaluable in the future while also better preparing their officers to serve a particularly vulnerable segment of the population.
About the author
John Harrelson is a 22-year veteran of the Horry County Police Department in SC. He holds an associate degree in Criminal Justice, a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Organizational Management. John is also a graduate of the 277th Session of the FBI National Academy. He has had the opportunity throughout his career to spend over a decade working in his department’s Special Operations Section serving in leadership roles over the Crisis Negotiation Team, SWAT and other specialized teams. He currently serves as the Support Services Division Captain after a three-year tour as the Criminal Investigations Division Captain.