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Riverton Police Officers Complete Autism Awareness Training

(Tanner Siegworth/KSL-TV)

RIVERTON, Utah – All 35 sworn officers with the Riverton Police Department have completed in-depth training for interacting with people with autism.

As police officers are being asked to do more as part of their jobs, members of the department said they felt they could do better.

There are a few fortunate people who are working their dream job. Whitney Van Pelt is one of them.

“I always wanted to be a police officer since I was a kid,” she said. “It was just something I always wanted to do.”

Officer Whitney Van Pelt with the Riverton Police Department. (Tanner Siegworth/KSL-TV)

She’s a police officer with the Riverton Police Department and can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.

“I just love helping people. It’s probably one of my favorite things,” said Van Pelt.

So when the opportunity came along recently to take a class on how to better deal with autistic people during police calls, she couldn’t wait.

“That’s something we deal with a lot,” she said. “It’s not abnormal to make contact with an autistic individual multiple times a month.”

Often, the calls end up being no big deal.

Sometimes, though, they can be difficult.

Especially when the person is having a crisis.

“We learned how to communicate with them in non-traditional ways, like picture boards and things like that,” said Van Pelt.

Those picture boards contain phrases such as “Yes” and “No,” as well as commands like “Sit down,” “Stand,” and “Your turn.”

The idea is to better understand each other and de-escalate what could be tense, difficult communication.

All 35 sworn Riverton officers completed the in-depth training, which Chief Don Hutson said was important.

Especially after a recent case involving Salt Lake City police officers.

“Obviously, the incident that occurred in Salt Lake City where, unfortunately, a 13-year old autistic boy was shot. I think that probably opened the eyes of a lot of people in law enforcement,” Hutson said.

That incident was this past September.

The boy’s mother called 911 for help.

Salt Lake City police officers responded and ultimately shot the boy after a chase because he didn’t follow their commands.

“Unfortunately, in law enforcement, when we are not getting the responses that are typical, we will take that as being a person who is being non-compliant,” said Hutson. “And that isn’t always the case with people with autism.”

That’s where this training comes in.

It helps teach officers what to look for and how to better communicate.

For Van Pelt, it’s all about helping people, which is exactly why she loves her job.

“We’ll be able to use these tools to connect with them more effectively,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to use this to help people in ways I wouldn’t have been able to do before.”

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