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Special needs registry seen as advancement

By Matthew Sockol
Staff Writer

Monmouth County law enforcement agencies have implemented a registry to provide better assistance and service to individuals who have special needs.

The Monmouth County Special Needs Registry, the first countywide registry of its type in New Jersey, will provide first responders who are answering a call at a specific location with information about individuals at that location who have special needs.

The purpose of the registry is to help police, fire and other emergency personnel properly assist individuals who have a physical and/or mental disability and to improve the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the special needs community, according to information provided by Monmouth County officials.

The special needs registry is voluntary and free of charge. Any person who resides, attends school or is employed in Monmouth County and has a physical and/or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity may enter their name in the registry. Registrant information will be kept confidential and will only be used by first responders, according to county officials.

Potential registrants include, but are not limited to individuals who are legally blind, legally deaf, diagnosed with autism, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and those who are unable to walk or have difficulty walking without assistance.

Information requested by the special needs registry is categorized as mandatory and non-mandatory. Mandatory information includes the name, address and emergency contact information of a registrant, along with the general nature of his or her disability and a current photograph. Non-mandatory information includes a registrants’ prescribed medications, treating physicians or doctors, possible allergies and blood type.

Registrants will receive a window decal for their residence and their personal vehicle to help identify them to first responders. The decals contain no lettering.

Individuals can register at www.mcsnrnj.org/

The special needs registry, which is a collaboration between the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office and the Monmouth County Police Chiefs Association, was officially introduced during a press conference on April 20 at the prosecutor’s office in Freehold Township.

Monmouth County Acting Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni was joined by Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden, Detective Shawn Murphy of the prosecutor’s office, and Sea Bright Police Chief John Sorrentino, who is the president of the Monmouth County Police Chiefs Association.

“The idea for the special needs registry came around about 18 months ago,” Murphy said. “Our office was approached by Chief Sorrentino, who at the time was tasked with coming up with training for law enforcement officers to better assist people with special needs. We put on a two-day training presentation in the county for experienced law enforcement officers.

“When we were done with that training, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Some of the feedback we got was ‘we wished we received this information earlier in our careers because we could have benefited from it back then.’ So we tried to come up with an idea that we could build upon and further that cause,” Murphy said. “We came up with the idea of building this registry.”

The registry was initially launched in Ocean Township, Monmouth Beach, Sea Bright, Eatontown and Tinton Falls. It is now available for the entire county.

“It is a true honor and a pleasure to be introducing this program, a life-saving program and a life safety program for the residents of Monmouth County,” Golden said.

According to Gramiccioni, about 63,000 citizens in Monmouth County (10 percent of the county’s total population) are characterized as having special needs.

“Those citizens, just like anyone else, might require the assistance of first responders at some point during their lives,” the prosecutor said.

Gramiccioni said there have been incidents in the county in which individuals who have special needs were unable to effectively communicate with first responders and certain behavior the individuals exhibited was misinterpreted by law enforcement personnel as being dangerous, when it was not dangerous.

“When we look across the spectrum of how we work with all of our citizens, we see that while our efforts are sincere and genuine, there is always room to improve when it comes to our assistance of special needs citizens,” he said.

Potential scenarios Gramiccioni cited in which the registry’s prior notice of an individual with special needs would be beneficial to first responders included an autistic individual who is drawn to shiny objects who reaches for an officer’s firearm or badge, a citizen who requires wheelchair assistance during an evacuation, and a military veteran who experiences PTSD-induced symptoms when encountering sirens and lights.

Murphy added that the registry would inform police officers that an individual who is suspected of drunk driving could be slurring his speech due to a neurological or speech impediment and not because of intoxication.

He noted the case of an autistic young man who is over 6 feet tall and who weighs almost 200 pounds and is drawn to touching bald heads.

“You can imagine a situation where a police officer responds to a call for service and he sees a (large) male coming at him and reaching for his head,” Murphy said. “We realize that could have some tragic consequences, but we also know that being armed with this information ahead of time, that officer could do something as simple as putting on his hat before he enters the residence, or at least know he is not being attacked.”

Fran Hines, autism outreach coordinator with the Monmouth County Sherriff’s Office, said, “the registry is a great idea. It promotes situational awareness for firefighters, EMTs and police officers. If you know what you are walking into, you are going to be a whole lot better than if you don’t know what you are walking into. There is really no downside to (the registry); it’s not public information, it’s voluntary and it’s a great program where we are going to be able to help people who may have issues helping themselves. It’s a win-win.”

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