ROCHESTER — An interaction between an Olmsted County Detention Center deputy and a detainee did not go well.
But this was not a case of someone receiving authority in prison. Instead, the inmate was autistic, and the detainee’s behavior, which could easily be mistaken for defiance, was actually just miscommunication.
Fortunately, the situation was brought to the attention of Olmsted County Sheriff’s Capt. Macey Tesmer, who immediately thought of a cousin who is developmentally disabled, and realized the interaction was one that could occur if her cousin was taken to prison.
Tesmer’s cousin is not always the most talkative person, and when you are taken to prison, you are asked a lot of questions: Who is your mother? Who is your father? Where were you born? What is your ethnicity?
“There’s no way she would be able to answer those questions, and then she would become frustrated and more nervous and more anxious and then less willing to communicate,” Tesmer said.
Starting with four team members in 2019, the specially trained staff has grown to 15 out of approximately 99 Olmsted County jail staff. A majority of the team are either deputies who have a background involved in helping disabled people or who have disabled family members.
Tesmer and Sheriff’s Office staff began developing a plan to train deputies, but they ran into a roadblock; most of the current training available focuses on working with clients in the community, not in a detention setting.
The Sheriff’s Office was able to partner with Olmsted County Social Services to provide initial overview training and was eventually able to obtain training from the University of Minnesota through a program called DirectCourse. The school staff could look through their catalog and select classes that would benefit the team.
It gives staff additional information, which is helpful, but it’s still not the ideal training for prison staff, Tesmer said.
While some law enforcement training is geared toward interacting with autistic individuals, that’s about all they’ve found.
“Our biggest challenge has been how do we take bits and pieces of what we can get that are available to us and apply that to what we do,” Tesmer said. “Because it’s a very different environment than working with someone in a group home.”
Touching and questioning can be confusing for people with developmental disabilities, so working to ensure prisoners understand what is happening is a key factor for success.
“If they have to be taken into custody, how do we get this person to do a strip search? It’s traumatic enough for a normal person who doesn’t have any developmental disabilities,” Tesmer said. “So how do we get them through it?”
This is why arresting staff have a manual with pictures that will guide someone entering the facility through what is happening and why.
“It’s scary for someone to go to jail, but then you add someone who doesn’t really understand what’s going on and it makes it even scarier,” Tesmer said. “So we’re going to try to get them through the process with as little disruption to them as possible.”
It’s very different when someone is under the influence, Tesmer said; you can make them sleep for a while and that can help.
“But someone who has a developmental disability, that little nap isn’t going to make a difference,” Tesmer said.
According to Tesmer, it’s about slowing down and taking the time to communicate with someone. Her office offers fidget spinners and weighted blankets to help calm nerves.
There are also two social workers embedded in the prison who can help identify what might happen to someone who is locked up. Prison staff are able to enter this information into a national database available to law enforcement, so if there is another interaction with the police and the person in question, officers can know in advance that the situation they are walking into might need a different set of tactics.
According to Tesmer, the program works where the team focuses on individual needs and what can help the process further. Sometimes it’s getting headphones for someone who likes music. Sometimes it’s letting an arrestee who leaves keep one of the fidget spinners.
“I am very excited about this team,” Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin. “It has already paid dividends in the sense that it has allowed our staff to work with the detainees as they come in, in a place where they are and whatever challenges they may have regardless of the challenges of incarceration, even though is temporary.”
Incidents involving people who respond differently to police orders can also happen outside of prison. Recently, Rochester Police officers were called to a location on the river behind the Government Center early on March 7th to assist the Rochester Fire Department with a man who walked into the river.
He refused to come off the ice shelf and did not cooperate with RFD personnel.
LISTEN: Captain Macey Tesmer talks about detention staff’s experiences with the developmentally disabled
“He basically would not listen to what the first responders were communicating to him, nor did he communicate back to the first responders,” RPD Capt. Casey Moilanen wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin.
Firefighters asked an RPD officer to suit up and go out to the ice shelf to try to get the man back to shore for medical attention.
“RFD felt the subject was in immediate danger to himself – he was soaking wet and it was only about 30 degrees outside,” Moilanen wrote.
While the man behaved similarly toward the RPD officer, both agencies were eventually able to get him out of the river without incident and he was taken to Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys Campus.
“The Rochester Police Department values the sanctity of human life for both our community members and our personnel. We make every effort to provide the training, equipment, monitoring and procedures that will increase the likelihood that every incident we respond to can be resolved safely for all involved ,” Moilanen said.