A police officer in Minnesota is going to great lengths to ensure that law enforcement encounters with autistic people end safely, and that other officers are educated and trained on how to deal with those on the spectrum.
Five years ago, St. Paul, Minnesota, officer Rob Zink responded to a domestic assault call involving a man who punched his mother in the face. When he arrived at the scene, other officers had already put the man in a squad car. That’s when Zink realized something the others didn’t — the man had autism.
Zink persuaded the other officers to let him take the man for a walk, and they agreed. He walked with him for eight blocks until he calmed down.
“I understand them,” he said. “A regular cop is not going to understand it when someone on the spectrum doesn’t do what they are told. Lights, sirens, yelling — those things can make them go into panic mode.”
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Zink, a 17-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department, was all too familiar with people on the autistic spectrum. The father of three has two autistic sons, the younger struggling more than his older brother.
Recently, Zink took extraordinary steps to ensure that police calls involving autistic individuals are handled safely and without incident. He created the Cop Autism Response Education (CARE) Project. With the CARE Project, Zink offers training to officers so they are able to learn how to handle disputes involving people on the spectrum. According to reports, people on the autistic spectrum are seven to 12 times more likely to be in a situation that involves the police.
Zink’s push to improve the handling of such cases didn’t go unnoticed by his colleagues, with many praising his efforts.
“We have been seeing more calls relating to kids on the spectrum and Rob has kind of become our point person,” Cmdr. John Bandemer said. “We are grateful that Rob has an interest in this from his point of view as a father. That and his work with families can kind of close the circle for understanding.”