Autism New Jersey Convenes First-Of-Its-Kind Law Enforcement Roundtable
November 15, 2023
On October 18, 2023, Autism New Jersey hosted the first-of-its-kind Autism & Law Enforcement Leadership Roundtable at Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center in Atlantic City.
More than 50 leaders in New Jersey law enforcement, including County Prosecutors and Chiefs of Police, from around the state spent an afternoon listening to formal presentations and discussing autism-friendly practices.
Setting the Stage
With a focus on increasing safety for both the autism and law enforcement communities, Executive Director Dr. Suzanne Buchanan highlighted the challenges faced and the opportunities available to make progress when bringing the communities together. She emphasized the value of sharing simple and effective ideas to collaboratively pursue thoughtful solutions to complex problems.
Buchanan also introduced retired Police Captain Gerald Turning, Jr. to address the challenges facing the law enforcement and autism communities on a deeply personal level, describing his perspective as both a law enforcement professional and the father of a nineteen-year-old young man with autism. He highlighted the need for improvements in autism response training for New Jersey law enforcement.
Complexities and Common Goals
Captain Turning explained, “My first challenge is to convince law enforcement leaders that they have a vested interest in pursuing deeper, more actionable training in this area for their officers. This is critical, not only to make them better, more professional public servants, but to also protect them from the risk and liability inherent in misunderstanding the behaviors, challenges, and needs of this remarkable community.”
Law enforcement leaders had the opportunity to hear about first-hand encounters with law enforcement from parents of children with autism. Speaking candidly about their children’s experiences, these parents highlighted safe and positive interactions with their local law enforcement, as well as one’s traumatic experience for both their child and their family.
These stories ranged from safely, positively, and successfully responding to the elopement of an 11-year-old autistic child and shepherding him to his home, to the traumatic law enforcement encounter of a 16-year-old with profound autism at a group home. The parents provided key lessons learned from each experience to share with law enforcement for their future encounters with individuals with autism. Their stories provided vital real-world context and recommendations for law enforcement leaders to take back to their respective local law enforcement communities.
Captain Turning spoke about the importance of training and implored law enforcement leaders to create opportunities for proactive introductions to individuals with autism and their families within their communities.
“Too often, law enforcement’s first introduction to autistic individuals and their families comes during times of crisis. Emotions are high, communication is challenged, and behaviors are misunderstood. This is a recipe for disaster. Effort is required from both communities to come together during calm and routine periods of time to establish familiarity and understanding.”
The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office’s (MCPO) presented on the topic of special needs registries, describing the genesis of the state’s first-of-its-kind registry program in Monmouth County.
The presentation included specific details to help other counties start their own registry or improve upon an existing registry based on Monmouth County’s experience. Details such as the registration process and the information collected by the database were shared. The MCPO explained that Special Needs Registry Liaisons in each local police department are integral to the Monmouth County registry’s success. Lastly, the MCPO demonstrated to roundtable attendees how registries in their own counties can be used proactively (e.g., to ensure outreach and preparation for vulnerable populations ahead of inclement weather events).
Tewksbury Township Chief of Police Timothy Barlow presented on “blue envelope” programs and other driving-related issues, emphasizing the importance of supports and resources for individuals with autism of a traffic stop or other motor vehicle interaction with law enforcement.
Chief Barlow explained that, “for a situation such as a traffic stop, any of us would feel stress, anxiety, or fear – a person with autism may experience more intensely amplified anxiety and fear.” Chief Barlow discussed Hunterdon County’s adoption of a blue envelope program, which is way to provide immediate information to law enforcement at the beginning of a traffic stop that a driver has autism and that may affect their interaction. Additionally, Chief Barlow highlighted key adjustments that law enforcement can make when making a traffic stop of an individual with autism and highlighted recommendations for individuals with autism when they get stopped by law enforcement.
Devereux New Jersey Executive Director Eric Eberman provided important context for law enforcement regarding working with individuals, families, and group homes.
Mr. Eberman’s presentation provided context for the complex situations that law enforcement might encounter when responding to a call at a group home or family home in which an individual with autism might be exhibiting severe challenging behavior. Mr. Eberman shared some real-life examples and provided data regarding first responder interactions at Devereux facilities, highlighting the most common reasons for a 9-1-1 call. Following this landscape, Mr. Eberman provided concrete suggestions to law enforcement that will help promote safe interactions with individuals with autism.
To wrap up the afternoon, Autism New Jersey articulated the importance of each of these areas, shared next steps for our Law Enforcement initiative, and encouraged all to get involved in the work ahead through the initiative’s topical committees (coming soon).
Roundtable feedback from law enforcement leaders was overwhelmingly positive.
A moving experience
I have been an attorney for over 40 years, and this was one of the best presentations I ever attended. The speakers were terrific, and the program was informative. Above all, the entire afternoon was a moving experience.
Job well done!
Job well done. I just wish the room was packed with more officers. I plan on introducing this to my County Chiefs Association.
Expand throughout New Jersey
Thank you very much for inviting us to this presentation. I would definitely recommend possibly hosting in various counties throughout the state.
Autism New Jersey sincerely appreciates the attendees’ participation and commitment to improving the lives of individuals with autism and looks forward to hosting similar events throughout the state.
|Are you a law enforcement officer, prosecutor's office, or work in a related professional role? We welcome the opportunity to connect with you. Please email us at LE@autismnj.org.