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New Training For SLC First Responders Aims To Improve Interactions With People With Disabilities

A photo of Mike Brown at a press conference.
Emily Means
Body cam footage from an SLCPD officer shows a 13-year-old autistic boy was shot about 10 times last month, prompting the department to adopt widespread sensory inclusivity training.

More than a month after officers from the Salt Lake City Police Department shot an unarmed 13-year-old autistic boy, department officials announced Thursday all first responders in the city — including firefighters and 911 dispatchers — will undergo sensory inclusivity training.

Department and city officials said SLCPD is the first police department in the country to undergo the training, designed to help them better understand and respond to the needs of people with sensory needs and other hidden disabilities, such as autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia and strokes.

People with sensory needs have a harder time processing external stimuli, likebright lights or loud noises, which can lead to sensory overload and feelings of being overwhelmed. According to KultureCity, a national nonprofit which is offering the training, 1 in 6 people have a sensory need — making it the fastest growing demographic in the country.

In a video on the group’s website, a man with sensory needs describes the experience as feeling like there is a constant glare in his eyes, even if he looks away.

“No matter what you’re trying to do or accomplish, whether it was making friends or just getting some work done, having that little light in can throw your entire perspective off,” he said in the video.

It goes on to demonstrate through visual cues and sound effects how people with sensory needs can be disrupted by their environments, even if they don’t on the surface appear to have a disability.

“We all have an inherent responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” said Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, adding that about 23,000 calls officers responded to last year involved someone with a hidden disability. “With that level of potential contact, we cannot afford not to do this training.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said her office was flooded with calls for change after the Sept. 4 shooting of 13-year-old Linden Cameron, whose mom had called officers to help her son through a mental health episode. Body camera footage revealed officers ended up firing about 10 shots after he did not respond to their calls and was running away.

“We are at the beginning of an evolution in the way our city addresses public safety,” Mendenhall said. “And through this work, we will live in a Salt Lake City that is more safe for its residents and for the officers who serve to protect us.”

Police officials said the training will begin in November, led by a team of occupational therapists, behavior therapists and other members of the medical community. Officers will have several one-hour lessons, followed by testing. New hires will have to undergo the training and all officers will have to recertify each year.

Along with the training, Brown said he hopes people will help officers be better prepared to respond to someone with a sensory need by providing information to the city's Autism Safety Registry. It’s a voluntary program that allows people to create a profile on the department’s website, which will then automatically let dispatchers and officers know that someone they are encountering has a disability.

Officials note the information is kept private and will only be used by dispatch and responding officers in an emergency situation.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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