The serious reason Richmond officers are using virtual reality, practicing traffic stops with families

Edwards: 'As a police department, we’ve been trying to get this pushed over the finish line, and today, it’s coming through'
Richmond Police Autism Training with Families
Posted at 8:29 PM, Aug 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-27 20:38:10-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Getting pulled over by a police office. Hearing the words, "Do you have your license and registration?"

These are moments with law enforcement that can make those living with autism afraid.

On Sunday, Richmond Police and dozens of families practiced traffic stops at the department's training facility.

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It's part of a broad push to have more community conversations about what works when law enforcement approaches someone with autism.

For Police Chief Rick Edwards, it's personal.

"My son is 16 years old, he was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was 4 or 5," Edwards said. "And he’s starting to drive, so it’s something that we thought about. And as a police department, we’ve been trying to get this pushed over the finish line, and today, it’s coming through."

Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards
Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards

Law enforcement practice how to interact with those on the autism spectrum, using virtual reality to do so. 

“The challenge for us is sometimes some of the things that some of the folks on the spectrum, some of the things that are exhibited, can also mimic those behaviors of someone who looks suspicious. Someone who won’t make eye contact with you, who won’t respond to questions in a timely fashion, who may even walk away from officers," Edwards said. 

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Those with the Autism Society of Central Virginia say finding a middle ground on how to react in the moment couldn't come at a more important time. 

“There’s more and more individuals being diagnosed with autism, so I think the likelihood of an individual with autism, to have an interaction with a police officer is really likely and we really want to prevent misunderstandings and possible harm, so I think events like today develop rapport and establish skills," said Ann Flippin, Executive Director of the Autism Society of Central Virginia. 

 William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Parents who attended the seminar, like William Hamilton, often fear what could happen to their children when faced in a situation with law enforcement. 

“Absolutely. 110%. I have a son that needs a lot of support, severe autism. And it’s very fearful," Hamilton said. "Sometimes he exhibits self-injurious behavior, and sometimes he may hit his hand on his hand, and I don’t know how an officer would perceive that? What would they do in that type of situation?” 

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Hamilton, a former police officer, said exposure can help erase some of that fear. 

"If there’s a community event involving police officers, try and go," Hamilton urged. "Because police officers are the individuals that are going to help and you want your child to be familiar with help. With individuals who respond to help."

Richmond residents can submit a free emergency health profile that can be critical to first responders when they are called for an emergency or crisis. 

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