For years, public cries for police reform have echoed across the nation. More recently, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, protestors have begun organizing and allowing their anger and fear to fuel targeted demands for new policies. Utah is finally seeing the ripple effect of these protests with a new law focused on police training.
State Representative Steve Eliason introduced the bill, and told ABC News that he did so, in part, after a teen with autism was shot by Salt Lake City Police in September of 2020. This new law will require all Utah police officers to undergo “training in intervention responses to autism spectrum disorder and other mental illnesses.” Eliason remarked, “Knowing how to deal with [people with autism] more specifically just seems like it could do a world of good,” adding that the new legislation is a “no brainer.”
The training was developed through the help of Cheryl Smith, founder of Autism Council Utah and mother to a son on the spectrum. “People want it, officers want it, families want it, it’s something that needs to happen,” she explained. “Our kids get mistaken for doing things that look maybe odd or maybe like criminal activity. But it’s so far from that.” Smith was able to assist in creating the written training curriculum for the program, and mentioned that the police officers seemed to be appreciative. “They don’t want to have a bad situation, if this creates a positive outcome, it’s a win-win for the family, the kid and the officer.”
The Utah attorney general has also been heavily involved in the new training. “We’re very excited in law enforcement about the bill,” said Attorney General Sean Reyes. “We view this as a very positive step forward to help empower law enforcement with the tools that they need to better serve and protect communities — in particular, vulnerable communities.”
Reyes helps train officers through a virtual simulator. The program always trainers to adjust the responses created in the simulation to adapt to officer’s reactions. “The beautiful thing about the system is that we can change the dialogue, we can change the reaction, the response and we can make it harder [or] better depending on how the officer is navigating the situation,” Reyes continued. “We worked with families with children with autism spectrum disorder, we worked with experts in the education field, in the medical community to behavioral scientists, to actually try to create and develop these modules.”
Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera noted that she has received positive feedback from her officers, and believes the law-mandated training will help keep law enforcement “consistent.”
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