The day is going to come, Charlene Wilford knows, when one of her 12-year-old son’s frequent “meltdowns” will bring the police to her door. When that time comes, she says, she hopes St. Paul police officer Rob Zink answers the call.
Chances are, he will.
Zink, 45, recently created the Cop Autism Response Education (CARE) Project, as part of a groundbreaking effort to ensure that police calls involving people with autism end safely. His first priority has been getting to know St. Paul families with autistic children and explaining how police respond to domestic violence calls — a not uncommon scenario involving those with an autism spectrum disorder. His second is helping police find quieter and gentler ways to defuse those calls.
“We need a general assessment for all officers to be able to see signs of these behaviors … before it’s too late,” Zink said.
For Zink, a 17-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department, the cause hits home.
He has three sons, two with autism. His 12-year-old is “doing fine,” he says, but his 10-year-old struggles. Knowing the challenges facing families, Zink has put in countless hours meeting with parents, hanging out with kids like Wilford’s son, Devont’e, and working on new training protocols.
Eight to 10 families have Zink’s cellphone number so that they can call when their kids run away, have issues or just want to see him. He’s trying to get other officers with autism in their families to join in.
“I understand them,” Zink 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.”
Cmdr. John Bandemer, the head of patrol for the Western District where Zink works, said it can be hard for officers to tell the difference between someone with autism and someone who just doesn’t want to do what police are telling them to do. Zink’s efforts might keep incidents from escalating, Bandemer said. There now is talk in the St. Paul Police Department about including training for autism calls with other mental health training efforts.
“We have been seeing more calls relating to kids on the spectrum and Rob has kind of become our point person,” he 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.”
Marjorie Okerstrom, who lives in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood and has two boys with autism, met Zink when he and his partner returned her 9-year-old after he had run away. She has had to call 911 “a lot,” she said.
“It makes sense to have some sort of training program because there is really nothing — unless you are like Officer Zink and you have a son and know how to deal with people on the spectrum,” Okerstrom said. “It needs to be part of the conversation.”
Zink’s work is encouraging to Ellie Wilson, manager of education, training and programs for the Autism Society of Minnesota.
Wilson trains first responders around the state on how to keep situations involving those with autism from getting out of control. People with an autism spectrum disorder are seven to 12 times more likely to have contact with police, either as victims or perpetrators, she said. The perspective of families can be an important part of that training, she said.
“He sounds like a guy I want to know,” Wilson said of Zink.
Zink’s experience speaks to the value of such training.
He remembers the 300-plus pound man roaring at him, angry and destructive, when he answered a call at a group home several years ago.
“He’s looking at me like he’s going to kill me,” Zink said. But instead of reaching for his gun or yelling, Zink stayed quiet. He held out his hand and introduced himself. The man quickly calmed down.
“It was a pure guess,” Zink said.
Zink recognized something in the man’s gaze and knew instinctively that the usual police response would only make things worse. He found out later that the man was upset by how furniture at the home had been arranged. He also learned that the man liked M&M candies. Now, when dispatchers at the home call police, a note at the home reminds them to tell officers to bring M&Ms.
But calls don’t always end calmly.
A November 2014 encounter between three New York City officers and a boy with autism led to a federal lawsuit being filed last week. The incident occurred when the officers drove to the boy’s home and grilled him about what he was doing, according to the New York Daily News. For reasons that aren’t clear, the police didn’t like the boy’s response, the Daily News story said. The suit alleges officers grabbed him and threw him to the ground. He was later released without being charged.
About five years ago, St. Paul police were called to an apparent domestic assault, Zink said. They found a woman whose nose was bloodied by her autistic son, and put him in the back of a squad car.
“At that point, he is totally out of control, he is in sensory overload,” Zink said.
Zink convinced his colleagues to let him take the boy for a walk. The two walked for eight blocks before the boy spoke. By then, he had calmed down.
The bloody nose? An accident, Zink said, when the son “geeked out.”
A burger and fries
Zink said all it takes to avert trouble is inserting a note on a police dispatcher’s screen to alert police that someone at that address has autism. Sometimes, he said, all it takes is a cheeseburger and fries, which is what he brings to Devont’e.
Devont’e used to be afraid of police, his mother said, so the first time Zink visited, he showed up in street clothes. Now, a uniformed Zink regularly visits the family’s Frogtown apartment, often bearing a double cheeseburger, medium fries and Sprite.
“His favorite,” Charlene Wilford said. On a recent visit, Zink brought a stack of comic books that belonged to one of his sons.
Charlene Wilford first met Zink about seven months ago when Devont’e ran away. Her son, who she said will always live with her, has multiple disabilities, including ADHD and Down syndrome. He’s been bullied and gotten into fights. Sometimes, he loses control, knocking down his mother.
But with Zink’s help, she no longer fears what may happen if police are called to her door.
“Rob has shown love and affection, a willingness to come to Devont’e’s level,” Wilford said. “Now, he thinks the police are exciting because of Rob.”
For more information about the St. Paul Police Department’s work to reach out to families of those with autism spectrum disorder, e-mail: SPPD-Autism@ci.stpaul.mn.us
James Walsh • 651-925-5041