April is Autism Awareness Month, and the San Mateo Police Department is taking it as an opportunity to remind the community about its Project Guardian program, which gives police information and tools about vulnerable residents to help the department interact with understanding and care when officers respond to a crisis or other encounters.
Project Guardian is a free, confidential program that allows caregivers, family and other people involved in the lives of people with autism or any other physical, mental or developmental condition to enter their confidential information into a police database to give officers more information about a person who they may come into contact with out in the field.
“We know there are members of our community who may wander, be frightened of the police, or react differently when contacted by public safety personnel,” said a statement released by the department this month. “By providing confidential information to us via the registry, the supply of information will help officers potentially locate vulnerable people faster or prevent causing undue stress and aggravation by alerting responding officers that they are about to encounter a person that has a condition that may affect our response.”
Police all over California are grappling with how to handle people in crisis due to their conditions, adopting mobile units that specialize in mental health instead of emphasizing a law enforcement response that sometimes ends with lethal force.
A study done in 2015 by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that advocates for people living with severe mental illness, found that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an interaction with law enforcement than the general population.
But people with disabilities or dementia may also behave in ways that appear erratic and against the norm, which can also heighten their vulnerability with police.
Perhaps the saddest example of this came out of Maryland in 2013, when Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, died of asphyxiation after being forcibly handcuffed. Saylor had just seen “Zero Dark Thirty” and was waiting for his caregiver to come and get him with the car when he turned around and went back into a theater seat without paying for a ticket, hoping to see the movie again.
Off-duty sheriff’s deputies from Frederick County forced him from his seat and fractured his larynx, leading to his death. In 2018, Saylor’s family reached a settlement with the state of Maryland for $1.9 million.
Loveland, Colorado, Police Officer Austin Hopp pleaded guilty to second-degree assault last year after violently arresting a 73-year-old woman with dementia in 2020 after she left a store with $14 worth of merchandise without paying. He received a sentence of five years in prison and the woman’s family got a $3 million settlement from the city.
In the Bay Area, a young man with autism who was an assault suspect in Vacaville was thrown down to the pavement and punched in the face when he tried to run away from an officer in 2021.
“You’re going to get hurt,” said the officer in an exchange that was captured on a Ring camera in the neighborhood. “Don’t make me hurt you more.”
Vacaville Police Chief Ian Schmutzler publicly apologized to the young man, his family and the community. The family also settled with the city of Vacaville for $140,000.
“After studying these models, we made the decision to, in fact, create a registry that would be beneficial to anyone who may have some type of condition, feelings, or disability that might make their interaction with law enforcement officers not the typical type of interaction.”Officer Alison Gilmore, San Mateo Police Department
Schmutzler also said that his department was going to expand its Puzzle Project, a database that has information about residents with special needs and is similar to San Mateo’s Project Guardian.
Officer Alison Gilmore, spokesperson for the San Mateo Police Department, said similar vulnerable citizen database projects exist in other police departments, but many are focused on only one portion of the community, such as the elderly or only people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Her department wanted to create a catch-all database for anyone who might benefit from the police knowing everything they can about someone that they may come in contact with who might not present as compliant.
“After studying these models, we made the decision to, in fact, create a registry that would be beneficial to anyone who may have some type of condition, feelings, or disability that might make their interaction with law enforcement officers not the typical type of interaction,” Gilmore said.
A new approach
Project Guardian came about at the spurring of resident Gloria Brown, whose husband had Alzheimer’s disease and encountered San Mateo police when he was in crisis. Brown has said that she wished the Police Department had known that her husband had cognitive issues and could be acting out as a result. She worked closely with Chief Ed Barberini to develop ways for the department to best serve vulnerable members of the population, Gilmore said.
The project is voluntary and collects information about a person such as their contact information, medical history and a good, usable photograph for identification, but also in case they go missing.
Gilmore, who said she had a close family member who experienced dementia, knows first-hand the sheer panic and terror that can go through a loved one’s head when they realize that a person in their life has wandered away and is unaccounted for.
Authorities have stepped up their game when it comes to locating missing seniors, such as the California Highway Patrol’s Silver Alert program, but in those first few minutes or hours when a loved one realizes someone has disappeared, they might not be able to produce a good, usable photo of the person, she said. Project Guardian collects such photos that police and media can use to help safely locate them.
“We want to raise awareness about Project Guardian,” said Gilmore. “And we’ll be doing that throughout the years to increase its profile so that more and more people who have loved ones, who have family members, who have friends that would benefit from this program, enroll in this program.”
In addition to the project, the San Mateo Police Department has undergone training about autism and mental illness and participates in the San Mateo County community wellness and crisis response pilot project, which assigns mental health clinicians to police departments throughout the county.
“Project Guardian is just another step Chief Ed Barberini has taken to be able to be sure that we are doing our best and constantly improving the way that we help people who need us the most,” said Gilmore.
Visit online to learn more about Project Guardian or to sign up a loved one.