Wichita police announce initiative to help officers interact with people with autism

The oldest of Wichita police officer John Biagini’s three children — who are all autistic and non-verbal — had run away from home. Luckily, the officers who found him knew who he was and were able to comfort him.

“It could have gone awful,” Biagini said about the event that happened about 10 years ago.

The longtime school resource officer now serving on the department’s exploited and missing children unit is the department’s liaison for its new initiative — one that aims to help officers be better equipped to work with autism or communication problems.

The initiative will include several things: kits in Wichita and Sedgwick County patrol vehicles to help calm people with autism, stickers that can go on houses or vehicles to alert police that they may be interacting with someone with autism, a card someone with autism can carry, training for all officers on interacting with people with autism, and a sheet officers will carry that will allow a non-verbal person to communicate through pointing at different letters and symbols.

The initiative was the brainchild of Chief Joseph Sullivan, who said it is part of what he sees as best practice in policing.

“It’s great to have great ideas but it is a whole different thing to turn them into a reality,” Sullivan said at a news conference at Heartspring on Friday.

Sullivan said he needed Biagini to make it a reality.

Heartspring, which works with children with special needs, worked with Biagini to help design the stickers and cards.

Biagini said the kits are based on what the Andover Fire Department carries. It includes headphones and different small objects they could hold in their hand to fidget with.

The kits will go in officers’ vehicles soon, police said. Scheels is covering the cost of the kits. There are “not hard numbers” but enough to cover the cost to have kits in each vehicle, Scheels store leader Lucas Hachmeister said.

The objects in the kits are for the children to keep, so those will be replenished.

People will be able to opt in via an online form to get the sticker and card. That will also allow 911 to be able to alert officers when they are responding to a home where someone is autistic or non-verbal.

The form will be available from the Wichita Police Department and the sheriff’s office before the end of fall.