Rob Zink, St. Paul’s ‘autism cop,’ pushes an unconventional approach to policing

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Zink encourages cops to follow up with patients about a week after they've calmed down from their episodes to repair any lasting fears they have of police.

Officer Rob Zink, under duress to intervene in a situation with a violent man at a St. Paul group home, once blew through a line of 20 customers at a Walgreens to buy a pack of M&Ms.

"This is an emergency," he announced at the checkout, as the cashier glared daggers at him.

When Zink arrived at the group home, he found a patient with autism in the middle of a meltdown, tearing apart the furniture and fighting the staff. Zink offered the M&Ms in truce, and the man was pacified. 

Zink, a St. Paul officer of 17 years, is known as the department's "autism cop." He's a father of two sons on the spectrum, which gives him unique insight on how cops should interact with people with autism. Flashing lights, searing sirens, and a harsh demeanor are likely to inflame and confuse those with a hypersensitivity to lights and sound, he tells others in his department. Those who avoid eye contact with cops or seem to ignore their commands might not be doing it because they're trying to be evasive, but because they're confused and afraid. 

Monday night Zink led a community forum on St. Paul's west side with a roomful of parents of autistic children, many of whom are on a first-name basis with Zink because he's the one they request when their kids need police intervention. A handful of Black Lives Matter activists were also in attendance with St. Paul mother Maria Caldwell, whose 18-year-old son Marcus Abrams was forcibly arrested by Metro Transit police at a light rail station in September.

Abrams, who had been standing on the tracks and not responding to police orders to get back on the platform, was taken to the ground and handcuffed. He suffered a seizure in the process, but his mother says it could have all been avoided if the Metro Transit officers had the proper training to recognize that her son was autistic. 

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Maria Caldwell, mother of autistic teen Marcus Abrams, who was forcibly arrested by Metro Transit police in September.

The officer involved was eventually fired.

“This is very personal to me," Zink told Caldwell across the room. "Now I’m getting teary-eyed, but I never want to see an instance like what happened on the MTC happen to my sons. I give it my heart and I give it my promises as best as we can. We’re not perfect, we’re all going to make mistakes."  

Zink started the Cops Autism Response Education (CARE) about three years ago in response to the violent arrest of an autistic young man. The man's mother, Linda Huber, said her son had fled the floodlight of a patrolling squad car, which made the cops think that he had something to hide. They chased him and billy clubbed him when he tried to struggle, she said.  

"What they're doing now is going to make a difference," Huber said. "Otherwise they're going to have a lot of dead kids, and lots of people are going to be pissed off."

The fledgling CARE program is rooted in St. Paul's western district, beginning with Zink informally educating his fellow officers. It has yet to fully take form throughout the city, but Cmdr. Paul Iovino says that it's now required training for new recruits coming up through the academy. They're hoping to strengthen it in coming years, as more children are projected to be diagnosed with autism.

Caldwell, for her part, was comforted by what she heard from Zink and other parents who trusted police to help their children. 

"It was very helpful," she said, adding that Metro Transit needed to hear Zink's lessons too. "[St. Paul Police] go when they're called. Metro Transit, they were just there at the scene. It wasn't a situation where they were called when my son was having his issues or whatever, and I feel that St. Paul should also include Metro Transit in these trainings."


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