RIVERTON — All 35 sworn officers with the Riverton Police Department have completed in-depth training for interacting with people with autism.

As police officers are being asked to do more as part of their jobs, members of the department said they felt they could do better.

“I always wanted to be a police officer since I was a kid,” officer Whitney Van Pelt said. “It was just something I always wanted to do.”

“I just love helping people. It’s probably one of my favorite things,” Van Pelt said.

So when the opportunity came along recently to take a class on how to better interact with autistic people during police calls, she couldn’t wait.

“That’s something we deal with a lot,” she said. “It’s not abnormal to make contact with an autistic individual multiple times a month.”

Often, the calls end up being no big deal.

Sometimes, though, they can be difficult.

Especially when the person is having a crisis.

“We learned how to communicate with them in nontraditional ways, like picture boards and things like that,” said Van Pelt.

Officer Whitney Van Pelt with the Riverton Police Department said it’s not abnormal to make contact with an autistic individual multiple times a month. Van Pelt and 34 other Riverton officers recently completed in-depth training for interacting with people with autism. | Tanner Siegworth, Deseret News

Those picture boards contain phrases such as “Yes” and “No,” as well as commands like “Sit down,” “Stand” and “Your turn.”

The idea is to better understand each other and de-escalate what could be tense, difficult communication.

All of Riverton’s sworn officers completed the in-depth training, which Chief Don Hutson said was important.

Especially after a recent case involving Salt Lake City police officers who shot a 13-year old boy with Asperger’s syndrome 11 times.

“I think that probably opened the eyes of a lot of people in law enforcement,” Hutson said.

The boy’s mother had called 911 for help. Salt Lake City police officers responded and ultimately shot the boy after a chase as they said he didn’t follow their commands. The boy’s family has now filed a lawsuit.

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“Unfortunately, in law enforcement, when we are not getting the responses that are typical, we will take that as being a person who is being noncompliant,” said Hutson. “And that isn’t always the case with people with autism.”

That’s where this training comes in.

It helps teach officers what to look for and how to better communicate.

For Van Pelt, it’s all about helping people, which is exactly why she loves her job.

“We’ll be able to use these tools to connect with them more effectively,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to use this to help people in ways I wouldn’t have been able to do before.”