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Police, Indian River County sheriff launch new program for residents with special needs

Posted: 5:22 AM, Nov 08, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-08 21:14:33-05
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VERO BEACH, Fla. - Whizzing through his neighborhood, with his gloves and helmet strapped tight, you might not know Billy Klingensmith lives with special needs.

“Come on,” Billy says, pushing himself further away from home in the Florida heat, his mother Peggy looking after him.

“My worst-case scenario for Billy is - he is a friendly chap,” Peggy Ward says. “I’m afraid for his harm, that someone might knock him out or steal his bicycle even.”

Peggy Ward worries if something were to happen and the cops got called, her son might be misunderstood.

“Billy gets, under certain situations, he gets excited and his words kind of get jumbled,” Peggy told Contact 5 investigator Merris Badcock.

A new program in Indian River County hopes to change all that.

Starting Friday, people living with special needs in Fellsmere, Indian River Shores, Sebastian, Vero Beach and Indian River County have a chance to get on the record before something happens through a brand-new program: Combined Indian River County Law Enforcement, otherwise known as C.I.R.C.L.E.

“What happens when you see the lights and sirens behind you, and you’re getting pulled over? You get nervous. You get scared,” Vero Beach Police Lt. Matt Harrelson explained. “Think about someone that would be more at risk with their ability to talk to people and interact with people as a whole? That’s really going to heighten that scenario.”

Harrelson says communication barriers can start with the 911 call.

“If someone is having a mental breakdown, who do you call? It’s us. Many times, we get there, and all we know is this guy’s taking his shirt off and yelling and screaming at cars on the sidewalk," said Harrelson. “But if we got there, and we already had some background information on this individual, maybe he’s off his medication, you know? All of these things can assist us in de-escalating that scenario.”

C.I.R.C.L.E. hopes to capture things like emergency contact information, disabilities and emotional triggers so that law enforcement can better respond rather than react to a situation involving someone with special needs.

“Anyone who has a mental disability or is mentally handicapped, the statistics show they are seven times more likely to come into contact with law enforcement,” said Harrelson.

That thinking inspired Harrelson to not just bring C.I.R.C.L.E. to his department but to make sure every law enforcement agency in the county was on board too.

“Our elderly residents always leave the barrier island and end up in either Vero Beach or the county’s jurisdiction, and this is going to be instrumental in getting them back safely,” Indian River Shores Chief Richard Rosell told Contact 5 at one of the final meetings before rolling out the new program.

“We’re in the people business, dealing with people each and every day,” said Sheriff Deryl Loar. “Sometimes, our special needs friends behave differently upon the sight of law enforcement. Some may be afraid, some may be shocked. This is a tool that we can use to let us know, 'Hey, we may treat this person a little differently.'”

“I think the big advantage is that we’re sharing information and working together,” said Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry.

Despite Harrelson’s efforts to bridge communication barriers, he first had to reach across jurisdictional boundaries to the law enforcement agency who inspired the idea: Jupiter Police Dept.

“Out of my 24 years in law enforcement, this project alone is probably one of my proudest moments,” said Maj. Michael Barbera, sitting inside the Jupiter Police Dept.

Thanks in part to Barbera’s help, Jupiter police have had a special needs registry in place for the last three years. It has already inspired agencies in Illinois, California, Georgia, Minnesota and Florida to make their own registries.

“We want as many police agencies as we can to just emulate this program. They can take the program, the idea of the bracelet, the cards, and just put their patch on it,” said Barbera, who also took a page from Vero Beach's playbook. He told Contact 5 that Jupiter police plan to share their registry soon with the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department in the hopes of better serving residents.

As for Billy, our bike rider at the beginning of the story?

“It’s awesome,” said Billy after he heard about the program. “The information on the paper is a great idea. You call the number and you say, ‘Hey, we know what we need to do.' You know, people like me are different.”

Anyone with special needs is welcome to register themselves or a loved one for C.I.R.C.L.E. at any law enforcement agency in Indian River County. The program is completely voluntary and complies with all HIPAA regulations. Registrants will receive an ID card and a bracelet with a unique number to help better identify you in the field should you need law enforcement assistance.