To Protect and to Serve

As students from a visiting school shopped in LifeTown stores, visited the doctor’s office there, and rode bikes “around town,” police officers from the Livingston Police Department toured the facility and learned firsthand all that LifeTown has to offer.

“The facility is amazing, they thought out every detail in every room,” said Officer Joy Klapal from the community policing division, who organized the visit on April 27 to coincide with Autism Awareness Month. She was particularly impressed with the number of teen volunteers involved at LifeTown, as memorialized on the volunteer wall. But mostly, she was happy to just be there. “I’ve been wanting to get inside LifeTown since it opened,” she acknowledged, though a pandemic intervened.

Klapal, who has 21 years of experience on the force, is no stranger to autism and believes the more interaction police officers can have with people with autism and other special needs the better for everyone. “As much as we can, we want to make kids realize we are their friends, and that if they see us, they should have no reason to be afraid,” she said. “We also want to get to know the kids and get more skills in our toolbelts for interacting with people on the spectrum.” She’s had experience interacting with non-verbal people on the spectrum in the course of her job and she acknowledged that it can be challenging.

The police officers, who included two captains, two detectives, the sergeant in charge of community policing, and two community policing officers (Klapal and her partner), all wore puzzle piece badges on their uniforms, representing their commitment to serve everyone in the community. “We have a lot of people on the spectrum in New Jersey,” said Klapal.

This month, the Livingston police officers designed their own autism awareness t-shirts which they’ve been selling for $20. They are donating half of all of the proceeds LifeTown. The other half will go to Spectrum 360, another Livingston organization that provides education, development, and support for people with autism and other special abilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 44 children nationally have autism; in New Jersey, the number is 1 in 35.

“The impact of someone of their stature thinking about our kids and interacting with them here is very meaningful,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of Friendship Circle and LifeTown. “It lets the kids know that someone is caring for them.”

On another level, he pointed out, it also teaches the kids that unlike what they see on television, with chases and arrests, police are people in the community they can reach out to if they are in need. “It gives them a level of comfort,” he said. “And it sends a message to their families that they have a place of importance in the community.”

He also echoed Klapal’s focus on policing skills. “Having a nuanced approach to someone with autism in a tense situation can enable an officer to manage the situation and get it under control rather than having it spiral out of control.”

Beyond visits and fundraisers, Klapal said, the force has done trainings for interacting with residents with autism and brought their own drug prevention programs to special needs schools in Livingston. Earlier this month, an Eagle Scout donated sensory bags for each of the department’s thirty-six fleet cars and one for police headquarters. The bags include a weighted blanket, fidget toys, sunglasses, noise cancelling headphones and pictures to enable those who are non-verbal communicate better with police.

During the visit at LifeTown, which lasted about an hour, as students went to the bank and the pet store and other venues and police “patrolled” the area, Grossbaum joked, “We made sure no one jay-walked!”

Both Grossbaum and Klapal expressed the hope that the visit was just the first step toward a productive relationship together. “We’re hoping we can do more together,” said Klapal. “Maybe a flag football game or even a game night with the officers and kids. We’re up for it!”

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