The University of Oregon Police Department recently implemented a new Vulnerable Persons Registry, a voluntary document allowing people to share information with the police about individuals with intellectual disabilities in case of a police encounter.
“What the registry kind of simply does for us as a community is, it gives my officers in the field the opportunity to know where they’re going in advance,” UOPD Chief Matthew Carmichael said. The VPR asks for basic information like name, height and other distinguishers. The registry also asks whether the vulnerable individual communicates verbally or nonverbally, as well as their favorite places to visit, favorite toys and discussion topics.
“It’s all voluntary,” Dennis Debbaudt said, “and it’s what you choose to disclose.” Debbaudt is a presenter and law enforcement trainer, having researched, reported on and provided direct training for police since the 1990s, he said.
Carmichael said, “You just can’t come in and, out of the blue, register somebody that’s either not with you, or you can’t prove you have guardianship over.” The VPR asks for current photos of the individual, which are then uploaded to the Computer Aided Dispatch, given to the officer.
The registry is not just for people on the autism spectrum — the website states that community members with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s and acquired brain injury are all eligible to be registered.
Carmichael said that even if an individual experiences these conditions, it isn’t mandatory to register them. “Just because someone may have anything listed in the examples, it doesn’t mean they need to register. This is for cases where a caregiver or a family member or the person themselves feels it may be really helpful for police to know this in advance.”
The registry asks for information on what an officer should not do, as well. “If I walk up to you as a police officer, and I get within 3 feet of you, that may automatically make you feel insecure or uncomfortable. And now, you may act out, not to hurt me, but to get away from me, and you may push me away.”
“There’s still going to be guesswork,” Debbaudt said, “but the more we can provide answers in advance and take some of the guesswork out, the contact, by its very nature, will be more informed and inherently safer.”
Carmichael said that the topic of police engagement with vulnerable persons began last year, in a meeting with then-ASUO president Maria Gallegos-Chacón. “She had some questions about our training, and she made a recommendation that UOPD should enhance training and understanding of serving members of the community with intellectual disabilities,” Carmichael said.
Carmichael said he began looking into training for his officers and reached out to the Lane County chapter of the Arc, a national organization that “promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes,” according to its website.
Around the same time, Carmichael said, Debbaudt had a speaking engagement with the Arc of Lane County.
Debbaudt said that when he and Carmichael first spoke, they discussed the possibility of UOPD training. Carmichael said he came from Florida to Eugene to train a team on his area of expertise, including Carmichael and other UOPD officers. “We’re building knowledge about behaviors and what you see, indicators that could suggest a community member may have autism, or may be on the spectrum,” Carmichael said, “and how we can best serve their needs.”
Debbaudt first published a report in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in 2001. “Because autism affects every sector of society, officers first must understand the condition,” Debbaudt said in 2001. “Second, they must learn to apply certain techniques in the initial contact or interview, which may increase the probability of appropriate responses and lead to a successful outcome of the encounter.”
Carmichael said that, while working with Debbaudt, he reviewed cases where officers “mistook an individual for being under the influence of drugs, not knowing they had a disability, and it ended up being a use of force.” Carmichael said he wanted to be proactive in that area, to do something about the chance of that occurring.
Over the next nine months, Carmichael said, UOPD and Debbaudt worked together to help create their own Vulnerable Persons Database. Similar models can be found in Canada, with Toronto Police launching their own VPR in December 2019. “They’re very common in Canada,” Debbaudt said, “but they’re getting very common in the United States.”
“We partnered with our friends over at Junction City Police Department,” Carmichael said, with JCPD providing UOPD’s Computer-Aided Dispatch since March 2019, according to the Emerald. “We’re not only going to train UOPD and JCPD, we’re going to offer training statewide, to whoever is interested,” Carmichael said.
“The University of Oregon — I’m pretty confident, unless someone proves me wrong — on the planet Earth, we are home to the only Vulnerable Persons Database for higher education,” Carmichael said.