The Early Notification Program
By Kent D. Crutcher
Officers respond to a report of a man creating a disturbance in a local supermarket while armed with a butcher knife. Department call takers struggle to gather as much information as possible as units respond. Upon arrival, officers locate the subject—still armed with the knife—standing in an aisle of the store and, apparently, talking to himself. Using their training, the officers order him to drop the knife and get on the ground. The officers’ presence and immediate shouting startle the armed subject, who turns and runs toward them in an attempt to flee. Understandably, the officers interpret this action as threatening and discharge their firearms.
The responding officers did not know of the subject’s autism. Individuals with this condition may not respond to verbal cues or direction, and loud noises or voices may startle them. Would these officers have handled this call any differently if they had this information available?
At midyear 2005, more than one-half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, including 705,600 in state prisons, 70,200 in federal prisons, and 479,900 in local jails.1 At some point, many of these individuals will reenter society without the necessary medical support and follow‑up care. Further, many members of the general population suffer from mental conditions, some of them severe.
In addition to individuals with severe mental disorders, officers routinely come into contact with another growing portion of the population— those with disabilities. On average, during 2001 to 2005, almost 30 percent of the noninstitutionalized adult U.S. population (approximately 62 million people) had difficulty in basic actions as indicated by reporting at least some trouble with fundamental movement or sensory, cognitive, or emotional responses.2
PoliceThis brings about serious challenges for law enforcement. How can local police agencies legally obtain and store this medical information? And, once collected, how is this data provided to responding officers in a timely manner?
The Normal, Illinois, Police Department (NPD) recognized this need and developed not only a process to collect the information but a means to provide it to responding officers, allowing them time to develop a strategy (e.g., use of nonlethal weapons, approach-and-contact techniques) before arriving on scene.3 Most important, it also can explain the suspicious actions on the part of the subject they soon may observe.
Agency personnel explored a unique concept: What if the subjects, their parents, or legal custodians voluntarily provided relevant medical information to the police? This inspired the development of the Early Notification Program (ENP), a voluntary notification system designed to aid in the interaction between citizens with special needs and responding law enforcement personnel.
As with any new program, specific questions require answers prior to the formulation of an effective plan. What will the program accomplish? Does it fill a defined need? What resources will it require? Rather than answer these questions themselves, NPD personnel conducted a series of meetings that included all local stakeholders. This team consisted of mental health service providers, hospitals, law enforcement personnel, attorneys, the Autism Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and many others. The discussions that followed provided the framework, support, and direction the program needed for acceptance and success.
This process allowed many questions to be answered and also gave rise to others. How would personal medical information be protected? Would it fall under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and be subject to disclosure? How does someone remove their information from the database at some point in the future? Identifying and addressing these concerns early on inspired trust and cooperation between all members involved.
“The Normal, Illinois, Police Department (NPD)...developed not only a process to collect the information but a means to provide it to responding officers....”
After months of discussion, the ENP launched. A person registering must be receiving or have a history of treatment for a condition that qualifies for the program. By registering with their police agency, McLean County, Illinois, residents allow their specific medical information to be entered into a countywide dispatch database. When personnel enter a call for service from a registered subject’s address into the computer-aided dispatch system (CAD), the medical information appears and is relayed to responding units via in‑car computers. If, for some reason, the responding vehicle does not have a computer available, the officer receives a predetermined code over the radio. The officer then may refer to a quick reference guide to determine what medical information is being provided.
It became apparent that this type of program would benefit not only those suffering from mental illnesses but also disabled residents and those with special needs. Through discussions, the group developed a list of conditions that qualify potential applicants for the program.
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- Alzheimer’s disease
- Down syndrome
- Deafness/hardness of hearing
- Mental illnesses (e.g., mood, psychotic, impulse control, anxiety, and childhood disorders)
- Visual impairment
- Physical disability
- Other special needs
Creating a successful marketing plan requires the involvement of the team. This holds true for two very important reasons. First, a cross‑functional team can identify and address potential issues; however, many only surface when the team is involved.
Second, employing the cross‑functional team improves the odds that those involved ultimately will support the plan. Getting buy in is a critical step in the process; if people do not believe in the plan, it will not work. The best way to gain buy in is to involve individuals in creating the plan. They will not criticize what they helped create.4
A successful marketing campaign involves three key components: 1) defining the product or service; 2) identifying the target market; and 3) developing awareness. Keeping these concepts in mind, the ENP committee developed a comprehensive marketing strategy. Brochures provided a quick overview of the program, who should register and how, and frequently asked questions. Personnel distributed the brochures to approximately 50 locations throughout the community, including all law enforcement agencies, hospitals, social service agencies, and special interest groups and organizations.
In an attempt to inform all local residents about ENP, personnel contacted all media outlets and invited representatives to a press conference prior to the program’s launch. Each agency serving on the committee received acknowledgment during the press conference. This not only signified the collaboration of resources but emphasized the support that each organization put forth in the program’s development.
Upon request, NPD also attends annual events held by various community organizations to register their membership in the program. To date, these organizations have included NAMI, McLean County Autism Society, and the Life Center for Independent Living. During these events, police officers explain the program and answer any questions the attendees may have.
Further, patrol officers sometimes encounter a person they feel may qualify for or benefit from the program. In these instances, they will provide a brochure and explain the registration procedures.
Within the first 6 months of launching ENP, over 200 local residents registered. On numerous occasions, responding officers received notification of medical or special needs information prior to arriving at the scene of a call. This resulted in a safer environment for both officers and citizens. To date, no unfortunate outcomes have occurred.
Program to Law
During its summer 2009 session, the state legislature passed the Illinois Premise Alert Act (ILPAA) (PA 96‑0788), which requires public safety agencies within the state that maintain a CAD system to initiate a premise alert program (PAP) to maintain information on individuals with special needs within their coverage area. This act was signed into law on August 28, 2009, and sets forth several requirements.
“Statistics indicate that in the course of their duties, police officers may encounter individuals with severe mental conditions.”
- Agencies must publicize the program and accept notifications from the individuals, their families, or caregivers.
- Authorities then must identify and remain aware of these situations when responding to calls or encountering individuals. Public safety agencies also must maintain the database, including the persons’ name, date of birth, phone number, address, and employment locations when possible.
- Officials should obtain written permission from an authorized parent or caregiver before entering the information in the database.
- Agencies should verify the special need reported through statements from the individual, caregivers, family members, friends, or medical personnel.
- Organizations that share CAD systems must disseminate the information among members of the system. Any information sent to an agency in error is to be forwarded to the proper agency.
- The information stored in the CAD system shall be renewed every 2 years or when it changes.
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Statistics indicate that in the course of their duties, police officers may encounter individuals with severe mental conditions. Of course, law enforcement personnel will handle these precarious situations most effectively when they have the necessary information pertaining to these individuals.
To this end, the Normal, Illinois, Police Department’s Early Notification Program has filled an important need for the community. Now, officers can resolve these situations while protecting themselves and maintaining the safety of the subject and the community.
Chief Crutcher heads the Normal, Illinois, Police Department.