App is helping to protect vulnerable Minnesotans and law enforcement

See original article on the Star Tribune Editorial

 

An app developed by Vitals Aware Resources provides profile information about people that would help first responders and others handle calls involving vulnerable individuals. The information appears on an officer’s cellphone.

 

Jack Herrmann says he has struggled with mental health issues ever since he suffered a traumatic brain injury over a decade ago. He’s been diagnosed as bipolar, severely depressed, suffering from PTSD and suicidal tendencies. A former security guard, the 38-year-old Brainerd man says law enforcement’s access to that information saved his life. More than once.

Herrmann told an editorial writer that officers went to his home several times in the past 24 months armed with innovative technology that provided real-time information about him, including his name, photo, mental health conditions, behavior triggers and de-escalation techniques. That allowed first responders to peacefully handle the crisis calls to his home and get him to the hospital for help.

The police used an app developed by Minneapolis-based Vitals Aware Services. It’s a promising technological solution that should be widely adopted by first responders, educators, caregivers and others.

About 18 months ago, the St. Paul Police Department became the first local law enforcement agency to use the company’s app. Since then, 60 Minnesota police, sheriffs and fire departments employing more than 1,400 first responders have signed on.

Vitals initially designed the technology for those on the autism spectrum, but it’s now being used by people dealing with dementia, schizophrenia and other conditions. The app sends crucial information to a first responder’s phone or tablet when a registered person is within 80 feet. A person with a disability voluntarily provides the information and is given a beacon — it can be a keychain, necklace, debit card, bracelet or on some brands of smartphones. Then, if they have an encounter with police, the officer has immediate access to information about their condition.

Another important feature of the app allows first responders to immediately contact a relative, friend or other caregiver who can video chat at the scene to help calm the person.

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau consults on law enforcement technology and is now president of Vitals. She told an editorial writer that she joined the company because she believes the product is a game-changer for law enforcement and for the most vulnerable members of any community. “Just knowing someone’s name can make a major difference in a cop’s interaction with a person in the community,” she said. “This app really helps responders slow down and make good decisions about people who can’t speak for themselves or can’t understand directions correctly because of their condition.”

Herrmann’s is one of many success stories shared by users of the app. There’s the intellectually disabled 23-year-old woman from Dakota County, who was stopped by police for driving erratically when the route she memorized to get home was blocked by a car accident. There’s a grateful African-American St. Paul mom who now feels more confident that her autistic son’s interactions with cops will be handled appropriately.

The technology company’s website also includes several testimonials from Minnesota law enforcement officials who say the app keeps their communities safer. Law enforcement agencies and other first responders pay to use the app, but it’s currently free for individuals who want to post their information.

According to data collected by Vitals, 1 in 5 American adults will experience a mental health crisis, 1 in 10 calls to first responders involve a mental health-related problem, and those types of calls have doubled since 2011. It’s an issue that can potentially touch millions of people.

The Vitals app can help turn what could be a tragic encounter with law enforcement into a productive opportunity to find help for a person in need.