Trending Topics

Why a different approach is needed when interacting with people with disabilities

Two true stories show how technology and collaboration can help avert a crisis


The true story of a boy and a dog and a crisis averted.


Sponsored by Vitals Aware Services

By Laura Neitzel for Police1 BrandFocus

Police officers are sworn to protect and serve the public. Not one of them wants to be in a situation where they use force on an individual who they mistakenly believe is being noncompliant when, in fact, the person has a disability or communication disorder. Yet, it happens all too frequently.

Chief Michael Goldstein of the Plymouth, Minnesota, Police Department recounts a recent close call.

“One of our officers, while just driving down a neighborhood street, came across a young man – seventh or eighth-grader – who was out walking his dog and standing on the sidewalk urinating during the day,” said Goldstein.

The officer approached the boy and tried to interact with him and quickly realized he had some sort of disability or vulnerability.

“You’ve got a young person who probably isn’t dangerous or violent or at risk of hurting himself or anybody else,” Goldstein said, “but it was also something that the officer and his partner couldn’t just drive away from and let go unchecked.”

The officers decided to try to guide the young man to the squad car so that they could attempt to get him home.

“As they were negotiating this, a car stopped, and it was a teacher from the school who recognized the child and was able to call him by name. The child responded to the teacher because he knew him. Crisis averted, right?” said Goldstein.

Not necessarily.

About a week later, Goldstein received an email from the boy’s mother asking ‘“What would have happened if that teacher didn’t drive by?”‘

“I didn’t have a good answer for her,” Goldstein said. “Depending on the officer’s personality, depending on a variety of factors, it could’ve gone a number of different ways.”

People with often-invisible disabilities and conditions like autism, deafness, mental illness, dementia, fetal alcohol syndrome or a range of other conditions may be inhibited in their ability to communicate, follow commands or behave in accordance with social norms, putting them at risk during encounters with law enforcement.

The Vitals app is designed to speak on their behalf, when they can’t speak for themselves.

Conveying critical information to first responders

Shortly after this incident, Goldstein heard about the Vitals app that was being developed by two tech entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities. The Vitals app was almost ready for testing, so Goldstein asked to let his officers be among the first police departments in the area to try it.

The Vitals app, now fully functional and in use by the Plymouth PD, allows families, caregivers, first responders and others to work together to keep vulnerable people safer and more independent.

Here’s how it works:

The smartphone-based Vitals app pairs with a Bluetooth beacon embedded in a backpack tag, debit card, necklace, bracelet or key ring carried by the vulnerable person. When a first responder comes in proximity to the Vitals beacon, the app will offer up in real time a personalized profile of the beacon holder, voluntarily provided by the family or caregiver, that contains critical information, such as the person’s name, photo and condition, as well as emergency contact information.

The Vitals app also allows the enrollee to supply a description of triggers and proven de-escalation techniques, giving first responders critical information they need to respond appropriately to a beacon holder in distress. The app even allows a family member or caregiver to upload a video message reassuring the individual that the first responder is there to help.

“Typically, people who are in public service – whether it’s police, fire, EMS, emergency medicine or those in education – really want to go a step above and beyond when we’re dealing with vulnerable populations,” said Goldstein. “Using the Vitals app helps us know we’ve done our very best to provide a sense of safety and security for them and those who care for them.”

Putting the app to the test

Sheriff Tim Leslie of the Dakota County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Office was quick to implement the Vitals app for his department, which supports 11 police departments in the county.

“There have’ been too many horror stories and sad tales where law enforcement – absent good information – makes assumptions or does things that may look like they were right,” said Leslie, “but when you do the after-action, you say, ‘We didn’t know this person was cognitively delayed or we really would have handled this differently.’”

The Dakota County Sheriff’s Office soon had the chance to see the Vitals app in action.

“It was Father’s Day, and we had a double fatal car crash on a rural county road, so we had a huge area blocked off while we were having the scenes mapped and photographed,” said Leslie. “We had a local police department reserve officer directing traffic at one of the closed roads. We’ve got squad cars sitting there with lights on, he’s standing guard so no one drives around the barricades, and a woman approaches in a car and says, ‘I need to go that way.’ He says, ‘This road is closed, and you can’t go that way.’ Well, the woman turns around and then parks, which was odd to this reserve officer.”

The reserve officer radioed the Sheriff’s Office patrol to explain the woman’s actions, thinking she may be impaired by drugs or alcohol. When the deputy arrived, the Vitals app alerted him before he even got out of the car that he was within 80 feet of Katelyn, who lives with her parents and has a mild cognitive disability.

“So he approaches her car and says, ‘Hi, I’m Deputy Gonder. Are you Katelyn?’ And she turns and she goes, ‘Well, yeah, I am. How do you know me?’” said Leslie. “He explains that an app told him about her and asks if she is lost. She says, ‘Well, every Sunday, my parents allow me to drive to Walmart on this road to get a few things, and then I immediately come back.’”

The blocked road was the only way she knew how to get home.

“For a person with a mild cognitive disability, that throws a curve ball to them,” said Leslie.

Deputy Gonder reassured Katelyn that she was in a safe place and that he would get her home. Thanks to the Vitals app, he was able to call her worried parents, explain what had happened and obtain their permission to escort her home via another route.

“So, she follows the squad car home, they pull in the driveway, and everyone’s happy. That was a really big save for us – getting Katelyn home safely,” said Leslie.

Turn stress into success

The Vitals app gives officers the information they need to know when the person they are encountering has a disability and what they can do to turn a potentially stressful encounter into a successful one. Families and caregivers can rest a little easier knowing there is a technology solution that helps their loved ones retain their independence while keeping them a little safer.

Families and caregivers can sign up for the Vitals app for free.