On a daily basis, police officers responding to calls for service face myriad questions in sizing up the people they encounter: Are they armed? Injured? Combative? Inebriated? Suicidal? On drugs? Physically ill? Mentally ill? A fugitive? A threat to themselves or others?
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said officers need to add another possibility: Is the person autistic?
To that end, he has commissioned the production of a DVD titled "Encountering People with Autism"
The purpose of the 20-minute, professionally produced DVD is to make officers aware of the characteristics, tendencies, behavior issues and other personality traits of persons diagnosed with autism. The hope is to avoid the possibility of officers or autistic persons being injured because an officer misinterprets the actions of a person with autism, which could include fleeing, repeating or not responding to warnings or commands, or throwing a tantrum, among others. Elsewhere in the country, persons with autism have been fatally shot by police officers who reacted to actions they thought were life-threatening but were instead manifestations of the disorder.
The DVD will be distributed in early March to each of the more than 100 police departments in the county as a training tool. Also at that time, departments will receive packets for families of persons with autism that will include stickers for homes and vehicles, information on applying for grants from the DA's office for its already existing autistic service K-9 project, and for its upcoming GPS tracking device program, as well as other information.
"Throughout the course of my administration, two of my goals have been to make sure that our local law enforcement has the best training possible, and to use this office as a community-based resource, rather than simply an office that reacts to situations," Zappala said. "This project will help to forward both of those goals as well as strengthen the relationship between police departments and their communities.
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