Police department taking steps to recognize medical conditions

By Katie Demeria

STRASBURG — Strasburg Police Department Chief Tim Sutherly said he knows his officers are not trained doctors. But that does not mean they cannot take proactive steps to recognize the medical conditions of those they interact with.

Strasburg Police Officers were trained in autism awareness about a year ago, Sutherly said. They are now working to train with the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia to recognize when individuals are having or about to have a seizure.

The training is done, Sutherly said, to avoid running into situations during which an individual may seem belligerent or noncompliant but is actually dealing with a medical condition.

“We’re trying to help the public, not be the bully,” Sutherly said.

Occupational therapist Alicia Lutman trained the officers in recognizing and responding to individuals with autism.

“Unfortunately, children with special needs are more likely to come in contact with law enforcement and other first responders because they’re more at risk for injury,” Lutman said. “So I think it’s critical that they at least understand some of the characteristics.”

Lutman added that sometimes those with autism may seem, at first glance, similar to someone who has been using drugs, for example. Some children are not given the services they need when they are younger that could teach them how to act in social situations.

“So you have an 18 year old that looks like a typical adult but that doesn’t have the social skills needed to interact with others, so things happen,” she said. “It’s just because we didn’t get the intervention services to them soon enough.”

Officers were trained to recognize when someone may have autism, looking for signs such as repetitiveness or avoiding eye contact. If they believe an individual is autistic, they can then try to avoid acting in ways that could upset them, such as speaking in a loud voice or physically handling them.

Sutherly said it is even more vital that police officers be trained to recognize medical situations because they are oftentimes the first to respond to a scene.

“Sometimes you go there to help and think you’re doing the right thing, but actually you’re escalating the situation,” Sutherly said.

“And in most of these situations, that’s how it should be treated, as a medical situation, until it escalates to something different — we just don’t want to be the ones to escalate it,” he said.

The department is in the process of setting up seizure recognition training. Because his 4-year-old son Luke has epilepsy, Sutherly said the issue is personal.

Luke gets petite seizures, Sutherly said, noting that sometimes Luke will stop what he is doing and just stare.

“If an officer didn’t know, they’d think he was being rude,” Sutherly said. “Having all that information puts more in our toolbox to work with. And that’s our job.”

Sutherly said he has dealt with people having medical emergencies himself. He once encountered a person driving recklessly due to a diabetic emergency.

“Luckily I recognized what it was,” he said. “But it happens a lot more than people think.”

Not many police departments are able to afford these kinds of additional training, Sutherly said. The Strasburg Police Department has been fortunate in not having to cut funding for those programs, he added.

“I think we have to keep raising that bar,” he said. “Things continuously change, and you either change with it or put yourself in a bad situation. You can’t prevent everything of course, but the more knowledge and skills we have, the better off we are.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com