VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Beach police officer Brandon Butler and his K-9 partner Nemo responded to what seemed like a late-night burglary call at Chick-fil-A on First Colonial Road.
But when Nemo led officers to the purported burglar — a teen girl — hiding in the play area, something seemed off to Butler. He told her to get on the ground several times, but she didn’t comply.
“She was not displaying the same emotion, the look on her face, the look in her eyes, as your typical offender,” Butler says. “Another officer went in, held hands with her and calmed her down. He tried to ask for her name. All she would say is “Chick-fil-A ,” “cookies,” and “French fries.”
Butler says he recognized traits indicating the girl was autistic, and was able to de-escalate the situation. The teen was eventually reunited with her family.
VBPD partners with Autism Society Tidewater Virginia for events and training, which chapter manager Nicole Miller says builds an important rapport between the law enforcement and special needs communities.
Miller says that through exposure to people with different behaviors and tendencies, officers learn to discern a person with special needs from a true threat to public safety.
“First of all, they need to see if they’re exhibiting any repetitive, restrictive behaviors, or any self-stimulatory behaviors that could trigger ‘Oh, that person has a disability and they need to make sure they are addressing it in a de-escalated fashion,'” Millers says. “So they’re making sure if a person is experiencing a heightened senes of sensory seeking behaviors, that it’s not necessarily a criminal act, that it’s something they’re doing to fulfill that need of self-stimulatory behavior.”
Social worker Alfred Howard says special needs present in drastically different ways.
“You may not know that they’re on the spectrum,” he says, “and then you may have some who are non-verbal to a degree.”
Officers spend time with special needs individuals during events, too. During Autism Society Tidewater’s Respite Night Out, officers spend time with autistic individuals and their siblings, giving caretakers a reprieve.
They also participate in the organization’s Surfers Healing fundraiser, which engages children with autism with members of the surf community.
On August 20, Deputy Chief Shannon Wichtendahl and Master Police Officer Jason Karangelen were honored at the event as the organization’s 2022 Community Heroes.
Lt. Bradley Wesseler says the partnership between Autism Society Tidewater Virginia and VBPD is invaluable for the education and training of officers.
“They come in and train our officers, and give us a better perspective,” Wesseler says. “They introduce us to members of the community so we have a better personal understanding of who they’re dealing with. It’s very effective.”
To avoid a situation like the one Butler encountered, Howard recommends families of special needs individuals contact Project Lifesaver to get a location tracker for their loved one.