Autism training for police officers: Getting to know each other better

Law enforcement has amped up mental health training.

HOUSTON – Justin Moehn, 38, is a young man with autism who took Hope for Three’s traffic stops program and is a presenter at the workshops. He has served as a volunteer with Hope for Three since it’s inception.

Colleagues say Moehn is an amazing self-advocate and has never let his disorder stop him from achieving his goals. He currently works at Blue Sprig as a clinical advisor. Moehn has been driving for years and understands how challenging it may be for someone who is on the autism spectrum.

Darla Farmer, CEO and Founder of Hope for Three, has partnered with the Missouri City and Rosenberg police departments to help law enforcement and drivers who have autism better understand each other. They were awarded a grant by Union Pacific to execute this effort.

Officers touch on a list of serious and chronic mental health disorders and learn to identify their symptoms. These symptoms can be more visible when someone may be going through a crisis. The list of disorders or mental health illness officers are educated on is:

  • Psychotic disorders (delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking);
  • Substance-induced psychosis (hallucinogens-PCP;LCD, cocaine, amphetamines)
  • Mood and trauma disorders (mania, depression and PTSD)
  • Developmental Disorder (Autism)

The steps officers take to deescalate a situation when conducting a traffic stop after initial contact with the driver and the experience is different than expected are as follows:

  • Officer safety
  • Remain calm
  • Ask the individual is everything okay
  • Ask if the individual takes any medications
  • If yes, when was it last taken
  • Call for another unit for safety
  • once comfortable, continue with the stop, the reason for the stop, then take action whether a ticket or warning.

In addition to the above-stated steps, while making contact with an individual who may be in a mental crisis, officers may also ask:

  • Do they want to hurt themselves?
  • Do they want to hurt anyone else?
  • Would they like to talk to someone or to the hospital? (Many will voluntarily go. It is just recognizing what you are dealing with and respond accordingly.)

Patience and compassion are a must when dealing with the mentally ill or someone with a disorder, but at the end of the day, the officer’s primary goal on any scene or traffic stop is safety.

In 2014, Fort Bend County seemed to be ahead of the curve, when the 1115 Waiver grant was approved for mental health training. Fort Bend County had implemented the 40-hour mental health police officer coarse training with the grant. That same year the non-profit Texas Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Association was formed. They saw the need for this area and were proactive in getting officers prepared for what was becoming a rising trend: officers coming into contact with people who may have a mental illness or different types of health disorders. The State of Texas mandated mental health training for all officers in 2017.

For more information regarding Hope for Three’s Traffic Stops program, you can visit their website.