Although the familiar law enforcement motto “To protect and to serve” applies to all citizens, when it comes to those with intellectual disabilities, it bears special significance.
Working with people with intellectual conditions presents a unique set of challenges, and officers often experience them in high-stress situations, with little to no training. In fact, according to Justice Department data, police training programs nationwide spend, on average, 168 hours teaching officers about use of force, weapons and defensive tactics, in comparison to 10 hours spent on mental illness and related topics.
Rowan College at Burlington County Criminal Justice Instructor Dr. Amber Ciccanti knows this well, and for her, it’s a personal matter.
Ciccanti’s son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at an early age, so she recognizes how important it is for law enforcement to have necessary and potentially lifesaving information at their fingertips as soon as they become aware of an emergency.
That’s why she partnered with Burlington County Prosecutor Scott A. Coffina and the City of Burlington Police Department (BCPD) to provide in-service training to all police officers within the department regarding Intellectual Disability Awareness and Response.
“As for the training I provided, as a retired police sergeant (and special needs mom), I understand the importance of learning how to interact with and how to respond to incidents and emergencies involving the special needs population,” Ciccanti said. “This is especially true since some of the best practices are different from how police may interact with members of the community that do not have special needs. I was delighted to provide training to the BCPD while wearing all three ‘hats’: the hat of a special needs mom, the hat of a retired police sergeant and the hat of a college professor at a community-minded institution. Additionally, I really appreciate the initiative taken by the BCPD and Chief [John] Fine in undertaking this necessary program.”
As part of the program, the BCPD has made available an Intellectual Disability Form, aimed at helping responding officers save valuable minutes in the event of a high-risk missing person. The form can be completed by residents before there is an emergency so that officers will have valuable information about the high-risk missing person at their fingertips if an emergency arises. That information includes a person’s identifiers, description, photograph and other points required to enter that person in the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) database. It also includes additional information aimed at helping responding officers, such as how that person communicates, their triggers, if they exhibit violent behavior and their preferred calming methods.
All of this information will save time and potentially save lives. Once a person is entered into the nationwide NCIC system as a missing person, any officer, despite the department they work for, will be alerted that the person has been identified as a high-risk missing person.
Ciccanti applauds this initiative and views it as a regional model.
“It is our hope that the partnership of the BCPD, the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office and myself serve as an example for other police departments across Burlington County to follow. I truly thank Chief Fine, Detective Czajka and Prosecutor Coffina for all their continued efforts in this endeavor,” she said.
- This article was submitted by Rowan College at Burlington County.