Utah transit cops train to recognize and help riders with autism

Utah transit cops train to recognize and help riders with autism (Photo: Jeremy Harris, KUTV)

(KUTV) – The police officers who patrol Utah’s largest public transportation system are learning to recognize the signs of riders with special needs who may be in distress.

The training has a deeply personal connection for Utah Transit Authority Police Sgt. John Pearce who has a son with autism.

“[People with autism] are dependent on public transit and it’s imperative that they feel safe,” Pearce told 2News. “We want to be able to calm situations and be able to help them feel safe on the transit system.”

Pearce says that if a person with autism becomes lost or confused on a bus or train, they can become angry and difficult to understand. He says if police can recognize subtle gestures and mannerisms, officers can help settle and orient the riders.

“People on the autism spectrum often engage in behaviors that can be misinterpreted,” UTA Transit Police Chief Fred Ross said. “They won’t look you in the eye, they won’t talk to you and it can mimic the behavior of someone who is trying to elude the police.”

In addition to the training, Ross ordered blue puzzle piece lapel pins for the UTA officers. The puzzle piece is a nationally-known symbol for autism that will help an autistic person recognize that an officer understands their needs.

“[The officers] love it, they are here to help people, they want to help people,” Pearce said.

Pearce’s son, Justin, was with the U-T-A cops at their training session Friday. He said he can relate to riders with autism who can feel overwhelmed on public transit. An interaction with police could cause an autistic person to panic.

“They’ll start panicking because they will be treated as a criminal when they’re not,” Justin Pearce said. “It would probably be a nightmare, you don’t know what’s going on, where everything is, you don’t know where you are.”

In 2016, U-T-A police located a boy who autistic and nonverbal and who was known to run from police. The officers located the boy and were able safely reunite him with his family.

“Public transportation is so important to this population for a majority of them that is how they access employment,” Calleen Kenney with the Autism Council of Utah told 2News.

Kenney’s daughter has autism and was also helped by U-T-A Police when she became disoriented on a train. She was quickly reunited with her group when a pair of transit police were alerted that she may be in need.

“The fact that they were aware and compassionate, it saved her life,” Kenney said.

U-T-A Police said they hope to expand recognition training to train hosts and bus drivers, as well.

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