Montgomery County Police Officer Laurie Reyes was honored recently by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department for her ongoing work to improve the way police officers deal with and respond to people with autism.
Reyes was one of 25 recipients of the Second Annual Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing, recognizing the exceptional work of law enforcement officers and deputies from 12 jurisdictions across the country.
“The Trump Administration supports law enforcement at all levels — and we always will,” said Attorney General Sessions. “Today’s awards honor the incredible work that is being done across this country every day. This Department of Justice takes pride in announcing today’s winners of the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing.”
“Officer Reyes noticed that repeated searches for the same critically missing people (individuals with autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and Alzheimer’s disease) demanded a large portion of departmental resources, both in money and in officers’ time,” said a Justice Department statement about Officer Reyes’ award. “She created the nationally recognized ‘Autism, Intellectual, Developmental Disabilities, and Alzheimer’s Outreach Program’ as a way to promote awareness and safety through education, outreach, follow-up, empowerment, and response. Officer Reyes identified a problem and developed a creative solution, which had a significant impact on public safety and public trust, all at no additional financial cost to the agency.”
Reyes has been working with the Autism and Alzheimer’s communities of Montgomery County since she started Project Lifesaver in 2004. According to Reyes, the program places tracking bracelets on individuals on the Autism Spectrum and those with Alzheimer’s. Over the course of working with the community, Reyes found that the department needed to be more proactive than reactive. “We decided that we needed more outreach to prevent the elopements in the first place,” she said. In 2015, Reyes began working with a young man from Germantown with autism — Jake Edwards to help develop the program. With Officer Reyes’ help Jake, who is now 15, has become the Montgomery County Police Department’s Autism Ambassador.
When Germantown Pulse profiled Jake and Officer Reyes, she said that each week MCPD handles two or three cases of Autism elopement, which is how the Autism community refers to a situation when an individual on the Autism Spectrum wanders off. “At least half of all individuals with autism will have one elopement,” said Reyes. “The police come into play when that individual is at immediate risk to themselves.”
Jake and Officer Reyes have been traveling to law enforcement agencies to help police better understand the unique challenges dealing with a person on the autism spectrum can present to on-duty police officers. A police officer might come upon an adult with Autism, who might be nonverbal, walking down the road or wandering in the street. If that officer who is already suspicious of the individual asks a simple question and doesn’t get an answer or gets a nonsensical answer – worse yet, the individual gets scared and tries to run away because they are scared.
Over the course of the last eight years, Reyes and MCPD have created a total approach to responding to calls for service for individuals with Autism and intellectual or developmental disability. She has implemented an annual Autism Safety Night Out, which was started in 2014, as a way to have individuals with Autism and officers come together in a fun environment and learn from each other on a first-hand basis.
Jake’s mother, Jennifer Lynn, said the largest impact she’s seen is the improved openness in willing to learn about issues. “There's more openness with law enforcement officials we encounter,” said Lynn. “Jake always approaches everyone in uniform and introduces himself. Since all officers are exposed to some training, whether it is with Jake or not, they are more receptive and interested. I believe that is a unique and special tone set by the programs that Laurie has started with the MCPD. I notice them watching my reinforcement and reactions to Jake even as we are walking away. That tells me they are open and eager to learn more.”
Jake continues to train police officers with the help of Officer Reyes, “The best training sessions are when Jake is a little goofy, and the class sees Laurie and her skills at calming Jake. It is very beneficial to the officers to see,” said Jake’s mom.
Top: Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas J. Manger, Officer Laurie Reyes, Lieutenant Jennifer McNeil, head of the MCPD’s Crisis Intervention Unit, and Assistant Chief David Anderson at the Department of Justice for the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing ceremony.
Photo courtesy MCPD