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New Margate Cares program aims to improve police encounters for people with autism

South Florida Sun Sentinel - 7/25/2019

Jul. 25--After showing her son the fire trucks and police vehicles at a city event Tuesday morning, Margate resident Jessica Sanchez registered her son Ethan for a database that could save his life.

Ethan, 7, has autism and was registered for a similar program in Coral Springs when they lived there. Upon moving to Margate, his mother said she was thrilled to hear the city would be starting a program there, too.

"It was a very easy process; it took less than five minutes," she said. "I think it'll help a lot because [first responders] will have Ethan's information and know that he is nonverbal and how to approach him, so I think it's going to help a lot in those ways."

Margate Police Chief Jonathan Shaw announced earlier that morning that the city was launching Margate Cares, a new program that creates a comprehensive database of city residents who have autism spectrum disorders. The goal is to let first responders know about people's conditions before they arrive at an emergency or other incident requiring special care.

"We have the ability now to register people, whether it's their son, daughter, or even an adult loved one, into a database that lets the officers in the street know if someone has autism or any related spectrum disorder," Shaw said.

"So if they get registered, if the officer goes to the house, we're able to provide them with a sticker that goes right at the front door so when the officer arrives there, they know there's someone in the house that has autism or a related disability."

About 1 in 59 children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder and it occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Shaw said the program will also help educate officers on what to look for and how to best handle an incident when responding to situations where they may not know the people involved before arriving.

"We've brought in several teachers who teach autistic children and adults and they tell us things to look for that our officers may not know to look for in people that have autism," he said.

"It's been a really successful training program and we've just increased our autism training from maybe every other year to now [...] we do it several times a year, we include it in our training curriculum throughout the course of the year."

The location for Tuesday's press conference was neither accidental nor coincidental. Rising Tide Car Wash in Margate -- and its other location in Parkland -- employs about 35 people with autism at each location, comprising about 80 percent of its staff. The cause is close to home for the company's owners, Thomas D'Eri and his father, John. Thomas' brother Andrew has autism.

"When we look at talent as a really narrow set of skills and experiences, we miss out on a much broader group of people that could be really great hires, and typically people with autism are in that group that can be left out," said Thomas D'Eri, the company's chief operating officer and co-owner.

"A lot of car washes were struggling to find one or two new hires to replace their attrition, we staffed this store -- we had 600 applications for the 40 or so positions."

The city of Margate was aware of Rising Tide's hiring practices and reached out to the company ahead of the launch of Project Autism. Thinking about his brother, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, D'Eri said he's not sure how his brother would react to an encounter with law enforcement.

"He might have reacted in ways that an officer wouldn't know how to work through and that could be a dangerous situation for both of them," he said. "I think initiatives like this are incredibly impactful and genuinely will save lives."

The issue of law enforcement being aware of and training to adequately respond to people with autism and other mental health conditions, while not new, came to a head in 2016 when North Miami Police Officer Jonathon Aledda shot the caretaker of an autistic man, 26-year-old Arnaldo Rios, after Rios had wandered away from a special-needs facility.

A bill was passed in the following legislative session requiring law enforcement agencies in Florida to undergo mandatory training to better interact with people who have autism.

Since then, departments have started programs like Margate Cares and Project Autism in which people with special needs or their loved ones can enter them into a database maintained by first-responder organizations. The database includes personal information, emergency contact information and details about their conditions, behavior and needs.

When people with autism encounter law enforcement, lights and sirens or other sensory stimuli in a high-stress situation, they can become scared and try to flee or they may get defensive or aggressive. They may also be nonverbal and unable to communicate their condition with first responders.

This year in California, a young man with a cognitive disability reportedly pushed an off-duty police officer who was with his child at a Costco, resulting in the officer shooting and killing the man.

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The Guardian's study "The Counted," which tracks police killings, found that about one in five people killed by police the person's mental health was somehow involved. The Washington Post's similar study "Fatal Force" found it to be closer to one in four.

Writing in the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, Dr. Kenneth J. Weiss, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, says that a sample of media and legal opinions show that, "society is attempting to place the 'square peg' of [autism spectrum disorders] into the 'round hole' of criminal/juvenile justice," arguing that, "persons with ASD may display behaviors that appear intentionally unlawful; yet, they may have a completely different subjective reality."

Other local agencies with similar programs include Broward Sheriff's Office, Coral Springs Police Department and Fort Lauderdale Police Department. Officials say they hope these programs will help educate first responders, improve relations with the autism community and save lives.

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