Grand Island police create new way to identify, help people with developmental disabilities

The Grand Island Police Department has created a free registry to avoid problems when encountering people with autism and developmental disabilities.

After families fill out a form, they’ll be given stickers to place on vehicles and front doors to let emergency personnel know there may be a person with developmental disabilities inside.

The stickers are expected to be helpful for police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. Those personnel will know, on seeing the stickers, that special considerations may be necessary.

The program, introduced Thursday, is already in effect. Police hope as many families will fill out the form as possible. The department has 750 stickers ready to distribute, said Grand Island Police Officer Michael Belleci.

The program is meant for people who have a family member with autism or other disabilities. That disabilities might include Alzheimer’s, dementia, Down syndrome, hearing impairment or epilepsy. Belleci wants those families to know that “We support them 100 percent.”

People who fill out the form will be asked to list conditions that might trigger the individual, such as bright lights or loud noises. If the disabled person is not verbal, family members will be asked which forms of communication might work best, such as sign language, picture boards or written words. People will be asked what is the best method to approach the individual and de-escalate a situation if he or she is excited or upset.

The questionnaire asks if the person has any medical issues that would be helpful to know if he or she is located. One question asks if the individual has wandered away in the past. If so, where did he or she go, or where is the individual’s favorite place to go?

Perhaps the individual might not understand basic commands or doesn’t like to be touched, Belleci said. Families are also asked to provide a photo, if possible.

Last year, all Grand Island police officers watched an online presentation offering guidance on how to work with those with disabilities.

A couple of weeks later, Belleci was called to assist a 10-year-old male who’d been bullied by five other students. As Belleci questioned him, the youth looked down and smiled. His mother later told Belleci the boy has autism. Looking downward and smiling are his defense mechanisms.

Belleci, 36, later had interaction with a man in his late 40s who is autistic.

Coming up with the registration program was Belleci’s idea.

Nationwide, there might be 1 percent of officers “that aren’t there to help and do the right thing. But with the Grand Island Police Department, I mean, it’s not just our department. It’s the community as a whole. We’re a home. And if we can help our community and show them that we care then that’s what we’re going to do.”

Belleci developed the program with the assistance of fellow Officer Michelle Anderson.

At the suggestion of a local nurse, police decided to make the stickers more subtle, to ensure students aren’t bullied by those who might have noticed a more obvious sticker.

Financial support from the GIPD administration is the reason the program is free to participants, Belleci said.

Officers continue to receive training about proper procedures in working with those with disabilities. One-time training is not enough, says Capt. Dean Elliott.