Local Coffee with a Cop event provides more than a cup of Joe

ANDREW WAITE/THE LEADER-HERALD Anthony Olmeda tries out a patrol car seat while speaking with Johnstown Police Officer Jake Arrunategui at the Coffee with a Cop event Monday in Johnstown, Oct. 25, 2021.

Photo Caption: Anthony Olmeda tries out a patrol car seat while speaking with Johnstown Police Officer Jake Arrunategui at the Coffee with a Cop event Monday in Johnstown ANDREW WAITE/THE LEADER-HERALD

By ANDREW WAITE/The Leader-Herald

MAYFIELD — Not every interaction between police officers and people with autism goes as well as the interactions that Joshua Corbett says he has with cops.

“When they drive by, I wave to them. They help keep you safe,” Corbett said at Monday morning’s Coffee With a Cop event held at Transitions’ Mayfield facility, a center that provides academic, career and residential support services for people with autism and other learning differences. Corbett says he has a lot of experience interacting with law enforcement through his job as a school crossing guard in Johnstown.

Ensure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out LeaderHerald.com/Subscribe

The purpose of Monday’s event, which featured representatives from the Johnstown Police Department and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, was to help strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and people with autism through education and conversation so that more interactions can be as warm as Corbett’s.

The reality is that police officers don’t always know how to best help individuals with learning differences, said Daniel Izzo, the undersheriff for Fulton County.

“It’s tough on the police officers’ side having to handle this individual and understand what they are experiencing and respond appropriately,” Izzo said.

That’s why education opportunities like Monday’s are so important, he said.

“It’s educating our police officers on how to deal with someone who does have autism or a learning difference,” Izzo said, adding that it’s also important “for the individuals to understand that the police are there to be supportive.

“[Police] are there to help and work with them and get them through whatever the situation may be that they are experiencing.”

Penny Rivenburg, the senior director for Transitions, said there are critical, concrete steps police officers can take when interacting with people with autism.

“Try to just settle the situation,” she said. “Try to take a step backward. Sometimes the closeness, people are not really good at that.” Rivenburg also said clear, one-step directions can make interactions more seamless. “Because a lot of people can’t quite process too many things at once.”

Opened in 2015, Transitions serves 62 teens and young adults at its Mayfield and Albany locations. It provides housing for students who want it as well as supports as students work toward degrees from local colleges, or pursue work.

Students take classes ranging from culinary to self-management to leadership and learn practical skills like navigation and planning to prepare for an independent life.

Rivenburg said a primary goal of Monday’s event was giving the approximately 15 Transitions students who attended positive associations with the police.

That goal was definitely achieved, with students smiling, clapping, and hollering excitedly as officers blared their vehicles’ sirens and flashed the lights. The officers also let students sit in the vehicles.

Anthony Olmeda, a Transitions student who says he wants to be a cop, said Monday was one of the best mornings of his life. When asked to describe what it was like to sit in a police car, he used words like “amazing,” “exciting” and “awesome.”

Ensure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out LeaderHerald.com/Subscribe

Like the officers Olmeda admires, he said he wanted to be a cop, “so I can protect people in the community.”

Perhaps after Monday’s event, the police officers in attendance will be that much more equipped at helping all members of the community, no matter their lived experience.

“It’s a continuing education for our police officers to understand that there are people out there that maybe just have a hard time understanding, or processing what their commands are,” Izzo said. “Anytime you can get the police departments involved with communities like this, it benefits everybody.”

By LH Staff

Leave a Reply