Blue Line

Vulnerable Person Registries: A promising solution for reducing risk

February 12, 2024  By Thomas Leydier

Photo credit: Motortion / Getty Images

It’s been a long, drawn-out shift, and Officer Thompson is tired. After filling her car for gas and clearing her last call, a domestic assault, she pulls into the parking lot to type. The squawk of the radio abruptly cuts the fleeting calmness of the moment – a youth with autism has left their group home and is missing. Thompson quickly queries the youth through her department’s Vulnerable Person Registry (VPR) and learns the vulnerable person (VP) was last found at City Park and is fascinated by the game Tetris. There is an accompanying photograph of the VP on file. Thompson arrives at City Park and immediately recognizes the VP sitting idly on the swing. After one fascinating conversation about Tetris later and a promise to play the game when they return, the youth is ready to go home.

What is a vulnerable person?

A vulnerable person (VP) includes anyone with a condition that can give rise to behaviour that creates a safety hazard for themselves. These conditions primarily include cognitive, physical and mental health conditions. Such differences, like autism, Alzheimer’s, dementia, or an acquired brain condition, can lend to atypical behaviours, including wandering, instability, attraction to environmental objects, heightened emotional states and difficulty communicating. These characteristics engender risk for the VP and potentially for the responding officer.

What are Vulnerable Person Registries (VPR)?

A VPR database retains unique details about VPs and readily supplies historical and physical data to responding police officers, augmenting the initial dispatch details. Moreover, the VPR promotes communication between the VP, the police, caregivers and other community groups. There are many different VPR styles found nationally; however, the common thread is a database that retains critical information about VPs, which responding police officers can access before attending a call, preferably from within their vehicle. The VPR furnishes unique details, including personal descriptions, photographs, specific fascinations, known frequented locations, addresses, support person name and contact details and, importantly, sensitivities or triggers.

The initial VPR details are generally entered into the database or police department by either:

  • A VP of 16 years or older,
  • A VP caregiver, especially if the VP is under 16, or
  • Another legal authority, such as a Power of Attorney or court order.

The VPR is entirely voluntary, and consent is required. The VP or caregiver signs the requisite information document authorizing the retention of their sensitive information and the police to access and share it. The data is then retained within the server, which the police or dispatch can utilize. The overarching goal is to reduce risk and promote safety.

When entering the data into the VPR system, various methods exist for the initial data transfer. Some standard processes include online forms, PDF and in-person requests. The data is provided on the form from the VP or caregiver, and, in the case of online access, the details are entered directly into the database or manually inputted in other scenarios. Online forms can now be integrated into online crime reporting websites or mobile applications, sometimes retained by police forces or managed by external partners. In today’s technological milieu, online reporting is suspected to enhance accessibility to the VPR.

To ensure officers know a person’s VPR status, VPRs integrate flags into the records management system (RMS), alerting responders that a VPR record exists. Flags can be utilized across various RMS, or on the Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) or Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), where Special Interest Person (SIP) flags can be marked. Dispatch centres can similarly observe the flags and notify attending officers, who are hurried and focused on arriving and executing an effective service. The timely delivery of data is essential.

Why set up a VPR?

If you require an impetus to begin a VPR, consider that the prevalence rates of autism are increasing. The latest data from British Columbia shows one in 29 youth to adults, aged six to 18, receive an autism diagnosis (Autism B.C.). Further, the senior population in Canada is expected to be 10.4 million in 2037. The logical follow-through is as prevalence rates heighten, the police will interact more frequently with VPs. Initiating preventative tools and measures to help mitigate the proposed risk is shrewd decision-making for police leaders.

Research demonstrates people with vulnerabilities are more likely to be victims of crime and arrested more commonly than their non-vulnerable counterparts. In addition, recent research shows that when the police are aware of a person’s vulnerability before the interaction and initial attendance, fewer arrests and physical force occur, suggesting proactive awareness is a prevailing mitigating and protective force.

There are many different VPR styles found nationally; however, the common thread is a database that retains critical information about VPs, which responding police officers can access before attending a call.

VPR pros

Augmented dispatch information: Chief among the pros are increased details and information. For instance, instead of guessing whether a person in an emotional crisis is a VP, an abundance of details is available for the attending officer if they are registered. This information supplements the existing dispatch details and expands the officer’s assessment. Gathering these unique details can enhance the officer’s awareness and sensitivity to the VP status; thus, it is anticipated to reduce risk. Similarly, the data can provide the officer with caregiver details, enabling the officer to re-establish communication between the VP and their caregiver.

Community engagement: To make your VPR successful, you must advertise. You are stranded without the VP and their support networks’ awareness of your VPR. The VPR promotes community integration and connection with local autism groups and medical communities like Alzheimer’s Support. You will want to go to where your client groups frequent and share the message. Some suggestions are hospitals, doctor’s offices and local VP community groups.

Reduced risk: Although the VPR has not been empirically tested, anecdotally, the VPR demonstrates utility in lowering risk for officers and clientele. By equipping the attending officer with relevant data before arrival, the VPR supplies the officer with practical information that they can leverage during the interaction to improve the overall outcome.

Forward-focused: The VPR’s provision is a proactive tool believed to mitigate risk. When VPs register with the VPR, they are preventively supplying their details in case of an emergency. The VPR plans for the future. Although the VP might never need the VPR, the police are positioned to respond proactively. In this way, the VPR is a community-based, forward-focused initiative that anticipates risk before it arises.

VPR cons

As with any initiative, there are some cons. In a discussion with Dr. Alisha Salerno of Toronto Metropolitan University, the following items were outlined:

Privacy concerns: Provided the VPR is a centralized repository of sensitive data, it can raise significant privacy concerns. As with other sensitive data-housing mechanisms, i.e., file and court document storage, there are risks with retaining this confidential information. Neurodiverse individuals have concerns about who has access to their sensitive information. Police departments should address these concerns by detailing where this data is stored, for how long and how it can be removed safely.

Interoperability/accessibility challenges: Police agencies across Canada work with different operating systems and RMS; these systems inherently create VPR access barriers and limitations. In other words, various police agencies cannot readily access each other’s information, suggesting that if a vulnerable person is added to one department, another department cannot access that data. Naturally, these barriers help protect disclosure and privacy; however, they can similarly create roadblocks to accessing critical information when needed. Police forces can explore regionalized VPR encompassing neighbouring departments to circumvent these challenges. Lastly, the inability to access VPR info in the police car is another choke point. Police agencies should try, when possible, to make the data accessible in the police cruiser.

Disclosure/stigma: Research shows that some vulnerable persons hesitate to disclose their information to the police. Much of this hesitation concerns the stigma associated with being on the VPR and mistrust of law enforcement. This finding underscores the necessity of the police building trust among diverse communities. In creating trust, the police can build inroads into these populations and increase disclosure. Similarly, transparency regarding where and how data is stored is vital for understanding.

In summary

VPR systems show anecdotal utility as a community-based proactive police initiative to reduce risk. It is essential the police work with VP community groups to attenuate concerns. Successful VPR requires the timely delivery of sensitive VP data to the attending police officers. Data should be accessible roadside. Departments should consider annual vetting of VP info to confirm accuracy and seek continued consent for record maintenance.

Thomas Leydier is a 17-year RCMP member currently serving in British Columbia. He graduated with his Master of Public Safety in 2023 and is the Governor General recipient of the Academic Medal. He has presented on neurodiversity and policing and continues researching in the field.

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