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Minnesota Officer Working to Ensure Safer Encounters Between Police and Autistic People

July 14, 2015  | 

The day is going to come, Charlene Wilford knows, when one of her 12-year-old son’s frequent “meltdowns” will bring the police to her door. When that time comes, she says, she hopes St. Paul police officer Rob Zink answers the call.

Chances are, he will.

Zink, 45, recently created the Cop Autism Response Education (CARE) Project, as part of a groundbreaking effort to ensure that police calls involving people with autism end safely. His first priority has been getting to know St. Paul families with autistic children and explaining how police respond to domestic violence calls — a not uncommon scenario involving those with an autism spectrum disorder. His second is helping police find quieter and gentler ways to defuse those calls.

“We need a general assessment for all officers to be able to see signs of these behaviors … before it’s too late,” Zink told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

For Zink, a 17-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department, the cause hits home.

He has three sons, two with autism. His 12-year-old is “doing fine,” he says, but his 10-year-old struggles. Knowing the challenges facing families, Zink has put in countless hours meeting with parents, hanging out with kids like Wilford’s son, Devont’e, and working on new training protocols.

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