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Law enforcement officers can project an air of intimidation when they walk up to a person. The fact an officer carries a firearm, a taser and other equipment that can subdue, injure or kill a person combined with a sometimes overly aggressive attitude means the officer bears a large responsibility for keeping encounters under control.

Mention the names Rodney King or George Floyd, and it’s easy to see how situations can escalate. Throw autism, dementia or other disorders into the mix, and bad things can happen quickly. Just look around YouTube or other social media to confirm that.

Thus it’s good to see that state officials are training officers to be more aware of how to handle situations involving people with autism.

As noted by HD Media reporter Courtney Hessler in a recent article, the Safe Interactions for Law Enforcement and Persons with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities training was conducted in Berkeley and Marion counties last week through a partnership with the Department of Health and Human Resources, West Virginia University and the West Virginia State Police.

State Police Capt. R.A. Maddy said the goal of the training is to reduce negative interactions and adverse outcomes by increasing awareness of intellectual or developmental disabilities, with a focus on autism spectrum disorder.

The training was mandated by an act of the Legislature passed last year. It requires the state’s law enforcement and correctional officers to undergo training for handling cases involving someone with autism spectrum disorder in which those people are victims of or witnesses to a crime, or suspected or convicted of a crime. The first training session was conducted about a year ago.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability with varying degrees of impairment creating atypical behaviors, patterns of interest, social interactions and communications.

Julie O’Malley, community and education training coordinator for the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University, said the training stresses the importance of being able to tell if someone is overwhelmed, sensory-wise, and understand how officers can scale that back. She said the training also stresses the importance of telling the person what the officer wants them to do, and not what they shouldn’t do.

“If they can take a step back, really analyze the situation a little bit better, it’s much safer for everyone involved,” she said.

That’s the key — safer for people with autism, safer for law enforcement officers and safer for the community. Things usually go well when people interact with police, but so many things can go wrong. With the growth of camera phones and social media, mistakes by police can go viral. The more we learn about autism and other disabilities, the more important it is for police to be trained on how their actions can affect what could be a tense situation and for police to heed that training.

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