The Police & Your Disabled Child

A few years ago, we started scheduling regular visits for my daughter, Katarina, with the local fire department. The purpose of the visits were twofold: I’ve tried to teach my daughter to feel comfortable around the firefighters – in the event of a situation in which she may need their assistance; and in turn, I’ve helped the emergency responders to learn the best ways to communicate with her and the best way to respond given her needs, should she require their help. The firefighters know her, interact with her, and have been informed about her needs within our community and how they can best respond.

Now we will be doing the same with the local police department.

In an ideal world, all emergency responders would be provided with comprehensive trainings on interacting with people with special needs in the community. The recent tragedy in Burlington involving an adult diagnosed with mental illness who was killed during an altercation with the police, reverberated grief and a need for change within our communities. The Burlington Police Department and the Vermont Police Academy embraced the opportunity to acquire new knowledge and skills to assist them in their interactions with those in the community with special needs.

There are also steps that you, as a parent or guardian, can take to provide police officers and other first responders with knowledge and best practices specific to your own family member.


You can request to provide your local police department with information about your family member, including a general description, a photograph, and other information that may be helpful for identification purposes. You can also add information about the individual’s personality and possible scenarios where the individual may encounter the police or be in need of assistance. Provide helpful information on how best to approach the individual. For example, my own daughter, who has autism, may become increasingly agitated with verbal commands especially if she is already in an agitated state. If you have a behaviorist, therapist or other professional working with your child, consider asking them to write up information that can be shared with the police and fire department to assist them. A quick action summary and more detailed information can be uploaded into their system.

The information you provide will be uploaded to a database accessible by emergency responders and police officers, should they ever need to assist your loved one. Provide emergency contact information, including family members and others who know the individual well and may be able to help and provide insight.

In-Person Visits

Your local police department and fire department are here to help you! In addition to providing information mentioned above, put a face to the information and also familiarize your family member with those working in the communities.

If possible, get to know local police by planning occasional visits. This gives them a chance to know your family member, and for your family member to know police and firemen are there to help and not be feared. If your child is on an IEP, talk to the IEP team about making ocassional visits to the fire and police departments as part of your child’s safety plan.

How about inviting police to events to meet with families? The more information the police have and the more familiarized they are with your family member, the better chances they have to assist in an emergency situation, should one ever arise.

We are fortunate to live in the small state of Vermont, which isn’t densely populated and allows us to truly be able to utilize the benefits of the community policing approach. In addition to the new trainings being implemented in our police departments, we as parents and guardians of loved ones with special needs can also help those who are tasked to help us, by providing information that will allow them to respond in ways that are the most helpful and appropriate. We’ve had “on the job” training for years and sometimes decades. Some responses that have become second nature to us wouldn’t be first instinct for those without exposure to those with special needs. Sharing those best practices and responses we’ve developed is crucial in helping to ensure that our loved one is most likely to be helped when they most need it.