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New police program offers developmentally disabled the chance to protect themselves

TIMES PHOTO: GEOFF PURSINGER - Sgt. Neil Charlton with TriMets Transit Police speaks with developmentally disabled students during this weeks Safety Academy, a 5-week-long course run by the Tigard Police DepartmentStanding in the lobby of the Beaverton Police Department, Tigard resident Andy Gardner cleared his throat.

“Stop!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, his hand flying out to stop a woman from getting too close to him.

His exuberance is met with a round of applause from those around him.

It’s all part of today’s lesson: Protecting your personal space.

Gardner is one of about a dozen people enrolled in an experimental program aimed at helping people with developmental disabilities.

Known as the “Safety Academy,” the free program gives people with developmental disabilities from Washington County the chance to learn how police operate, and ways to protect themselves, said Jim Wolf, a spokesman for the Tigard Police Department, which is co-organizing the event.

“Universally, this is a population that sometimes gets overlooked, and more importantly, we know they tend to be more vulnerable to crime and exploitation,” Wolf said.

The academy is run by the Westside Crime Prevention Coalition, a group of law enforcement representatives from the Tigard, Beaverton and Hillsboro police departments, as well as the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

For more than a decade, those departments have worked to tackle issues that affect residents county-wide, holding educational seminars on several topics, including monthly get-togethers with landlords and property owners on crime prevention techniques.

Seeing through the badge

Wolf said that it’s a new way of addressing an age-old problem. Often, people with developmental disabilities don’t know how to interact with police and vice versa.

“Many of these people have had some undesirable encounters with police through the course of their adult lives, and we hope that by presenting police as welcoming and caring, we may learn something from this experience.”

Held every Monday at the Beaverton Police Department, the pilot program is aimed at demystifying how police work, Wolf said.

TIMES PHOTO: GEOFF PURSINGER - Tigard Police spokesman Jim Wolf and Tigard Officer Kristan Rinell  show basic self-defense skills during Mondays class. The Safety Academy runs through May.“We want adults with disabilities to see through the badge,” Wolf said. “They should know how to approach police, and know that a police officer is their go-to person if they are ever in a situation that needs our help. They can trust us and know that they can come to us to get help or answers, or just to visit and be friendly.”

Classes are taught by police officers and crime prevention specialists, covering everything from preventing fraud and identity theft to pedestrian safety and how to interact with police officers.

Some of the classes focus on learning new skills, such as learning how to ride public transportation, Wolf said,

“One question we ask is ‘How do they not draw attention to themselves?’ That often increases their vulnerability,” Wolf said. “If they know how to buy a MAX ticket, that will not only give them some self-confidence that they can do all these things, but it also sends a clear message to the people that are maybe looking to take advantage of them.”

Participant Jordy Flemming said he has learned a lot from the class, which began April 6.

“I like it because I get to interact with cops,” said Flemming, who lives in a group home in Hillsboro. “They tell us about all the things that they learned over the years.”

‘It helps me to focus’

Wolf said the hope is that participants will be better able to navigate through their day-to-day activities and life’s challenges.

“Some of them live in group homes, and we talk about how they can better conduct themselves,” Wolf said. “Some of them didn’t know that they should close their blinds at night, and some thought that when they leave the house just closing their door is enough. We talk about how to keep themselves safe and protect their stuff.”

Gardner, of Tigard, said that the program has already yielded results for him.

“I like the class because it helps me do better,” Gardner said. “It helps me to focus.”

That’s good news to Wolf, who said that despite what he called an “obvious need” for a program like this, he admitted it was difficult to put together.

“When we first discussed it, it was met with a bit of angst,” Wolf said. “We didn’t know how we were going to strike that delicate balance. We didn’t want to appear that we were talking down to anyone. That was important.”

Wolf said that after only two classes, the Coalition has agreed to keep the program going, with another series of classes to be offered later this year.

Wolf said that the level of engagement from participants has been outstanding.

“I’ve already been told that they shared what they learned with their friends,” Wolf said. “That made me feel very appreciative that they find it important. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

For more information on the program, contact Brandi Gilbert, crime prevention specialist at the Hillsboro Police Department, at 503-615-6785 or email brandi.gilbert@hillsboro-oregon.gov.

By Geoff Pursinger
email: gpursinger@commnewspapers.com
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