Story by Troy Taysom • Photographs by Laurie ReyesPolice officers deal with a variety of people and problems daily. Some of the problems are self-inflicted, others are the result of genetics and some simply have unknown origins. Misidentifying a problem is an all too common occurrence in law enforcement. A person approached by officers may suffer from mental illness, a genetic disorder like autism or even a disease like Alzheimer’s, which renders them incapable of following simple commands.
These types of encounters have had really bad outcomes in the past. An officer may mistake a person with autism for a noncompliant individual, or a person with mental illness for a drug abuser. What many people don’t realize is that these individuals are less than capable of following commands because of their disorder, not because they are defiant or high. This shift in thinking is saving lives, careers and creating a cohesive bond between cops and citizens.
Laurie Reyes of the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) in Maryland, is the leading advocate for this paradigm shift. To understand Reyes one must first be able to comprehend selflessness, dogged determination and unconditional love. If these concepts don’t register, then stop reading, because you will never understand her. If, however, you know what it’s like to fight uphill battles, deal with heartache without quitting and love those who are misunderstood and ostracized, then you will love Reyes and her story.
Since the age of five, Reyes knew she wanted to be a cop and nothing less would do. She loved everything about cops; the cars, the lights, etc. And helping those in need was programmed into her DNA. She never wavered from her goal of becoming an officer, and after completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland, Reyes was hired by the MCPD.
Reyes spent seven years in the patrol division before being assigned to special operations. Her job with within this department was to oversee Project Lifesaver. Project Lifesaver is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose stated purpose is “(t)o provide timely responses to save lives and reduce potential injury for adults and children who wander due to Alzheimer’s, autism, and other related conditions or disorders.”
Officer Reyes has been working to integrate this project into the MCPD for the past 10 years. The program provides tracking bracelets for adults and children who are predisposed to wander or elope, due to cognitive disorders. The bracelets are trackable by air up to a couple miles away. While a wonderful tool for caregivers and police, the bracelets don’t address perhaps the most serious issue and that is an officer’s interaction with people suffering from a cognitive disorder.
Cognitive disorders are not mental illnesses. The autism spectrum, while it affects the brain, is not a mental illness like depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder. Because of this officers need to understand how to identify and, more importantly, approach and interact with a someone who has autism. This is where Reyes comes in.
Reyes has worked tirelessly to create a program that teaches officers to recognize autism and understand the intricacies of interacting with these people. The normal procedures for dealing with a citizen will not work with a person with autism. In fact, standard practices could potentially escalate a situation. This can be confusing not only to the citizen, but for the officer as well.
Fortunately, Reyes has spent countless hours studying and learning about autism, and its potential effects and manifestations. Speaking with her, I found that she is well versed in the subject and its unique challenges. My wife works in special education and I have learned a great deal from her about those who suffer from cognitive disorders, especially autism, and she helped me put together questions for this interview. It was extremely helpful to have an assistant who helped me understand Reye’s answers.
Children with autism have what Jake Edwards, a young man with autism – more about him in a moment – calls his “super powers.” These powers tend to be heightened senses, especially hearing and touch. Many autistic people are sensitive to loud noises such as music, crying babies, yelling and sudden loud sounds. These can trigger the child to act out in an attempt to stop the noise, and at times the actions can be violent. They are also very sensitive to touch, both being touched and needed something to hold. Simply touching a child with autism may also lead them to be violent, but on the other hand, they can be calmed when given an item such as soft toy, a string of beads or a textured ball to hold. This need for holding or touching an object is called sensory.
Reyes understands all of these issues and has started training the officers of the MCPD to approach situations in a different manner. She wants the officers to think, “Could this be autism? Would a bag of skittles work better than going hands on?” Give simple commands, in a calm voice, and allow the person time to process what is being asked. At no time, however, is officer safety to be compromised, but children with autism respond differently, and this difference must be accounted for.
It isn’t just the police that Reyes works with; she is also involved with the parents and primary caregivers, and helps them get identity bracelets (different from the tracking bracelets), which help officers immediately identify a person with autism. With the help of their parents, children are encouraged to approach police officers in public and show them their bracelet.
Reyes has also had bright yellow T-shirts made that she gives to caregivers and parents. These shirts identify the child as having autism and says, “If I’m alone call 911.” It also has the MCPD badge on the back with the same admonishment. These shirts have helped dozens of children who eloped and were later found by citizens. They are only given to the children that are prone to eloping, are nonverbal and a danger to themselves. Many of them are resistant to wearing the bracelet because of their sensory issues.
This job has given Reyes some of the highest highs and lowest lows that one can experience in police work. She told me of a young man whom she had worked with when he lived in Montgomery County. The boy had autism and was nonverbal. The conditions he lived in were deplorable. Reyes lost contact with him when he moved to a neighboring county, but some months later officers from the MCPD found him. They identified his bracelet, called Reyes and said, “Hey, we have one of your kids down here.” The scene was horrific; the young boy was carrying a bedpost to which he was chained and locked. He had somehow broken the bedpost away from the rest of the bed and walked several miles back to Montgomery County.
Reyes told me, “This crushed me to the core.” I could hear the sadness and anger in her voice as she relayed the story. She still keeps and shows officers the dog leash and padlock used to hold him, but she says, “Jake Edwards makes it all worth it.” Who is Jake Edwards? According to her, “Jake will change the world.”
Jake is a young man with autism. He is a vocal, self-advocate who was recently named the ambassador for Autism Night Out in Montgomery County. At this year’s event Jake gave a speech in front of a crowd of hundreds of people. The speech, which can be found on YouTube, was moving. So moving, in fact, that it brought 38-year law enforcement veteran Chief J. Thomas Manger of the MCPD, to tears. Very few in attendance had a dry eye when Jake was finished speaking. Do yourself a favor and watch the speech – you’ll be a better person for it.
Jake’s vibrant personality, along with his indominatable spirit, makes him the perfect person to represent those with autism. Reyes’ plan is for Jake to speak directly to recruits in the police academy, giving them a chance to speak and deal with a person who has autism in a safe, controlled environment. Education is really the key when it comes to understanding these people.
Reyes will be the first to tell you that she does not, and could not, do this alone. Caregivers, like Jake’s mother, Jenn Lynn, are Reyes’s number one supporters. She is also supported by her colleagues like, Officer Tara Wimmer and Paula Aulestia, an amazing volunteer who works closely with Officer Jason Huggins, a search and rescue unit coordinator, as well as all of the officers that belong to this specialized group.
Officer Reyes was quick to point out that her husband Tarik and their sons have been supportive of her career in law enforcement too, especially her work with Project Lifesaver. Her parents, Roger and Dee Nelson, actively support Autism Night Out, passing out pizza and greeting everyone with their infectious smiles. The approach: get everyone involved and the kids become the winners.
Simply put, Reyes’s job is to save lives. She works assiduously to make sure that all officers’ interactions with people who have intellectual developmental disabilities are safe and nonviolent. Thirty years ago people with autism were hidden away and forgotten by society; today they are living productive lives. This dramatic turn of events would not be possible without people like Reyes and all of the dedicated, loyal caregivers and educators who work with these children and adults on a daily basis.
Chief Manger of the MCPD told me, “Officers like Laurie Reyes are the heart and soul of our police department. Her work in the community has made us better at what we do. Among everything she has done, putting on the police department’s Autism Night Out event is amazing, and one of my favorite nights of the year!”
It’s not just the chief who admires Reyes. Jenn Lynn said, “Officer Reyes means a future for our children. I’m less scared about my child’s independence, knowing Officer Reyes is leading our county and the country in autism education for all officers. Her heart is gold, and her efforts tireless. She is devoted to our children and saves lives every day.” ASJ
Editor’s note: To learn more about autism and how to get involved in your community go to autismspeaks.org.