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New App Helps Interactions Between Police, People With Special Needs

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A smartphone app designed to help law enforcement interact with people with mental and physical disabilities is about to roll out in one of the state's largest counties.

"If a first responder or a police officer sees him, they're not going to see that cognitive ability," said Farmington mother Nancy Nelson.

She remembers when an officer once approached her son, Jacob, while he was out riding his scooter.

He asked Jacob if he could pull over to make sure it was a street legal and not gas operated -- but Jacob was scared and kept going.

"The officer was like, 'Pull over! We need to talk to you!' and he started crying," Nancy said.

She said the memory is a perfect example of how a new app will help people with disabilities and officers have safe encounters.

Jacob now carries around a special lanyard that contains a Vitals beacon. When an officer comes within 80 feet of the beacon, his profile automatically pops up on the officer's phone.

Vitals App Beacon
(credit: CBS)

It shows his condition, medications and best ways to approach him or de-escalation techniques.

"When I heard about the Vitals app, I was like, 'Yes, this is it,'" Nancy said.

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau signed on to work with Vitals in the fall to help officers get more familiar with the technology.

"We're very collaborative and progressive, and so it would be awesome if other counties would follow our lead and see if it works for them," said Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie.

Getting officers trained in Dakota County required a months-long partnership between social services and the sheriff's office.

"We've already got 86 individuals that have signed up, and we definitely expect to see an increase," said Angela Lockhart, integrated service delivery coordinator for Dakota County.

Jacob thinks his beacon is pretty cool, and it gives his mom peace of mind.

"This is a life changer," Nancy said.

The Vitals app costs just under $10 a month. Five-hundred Dakota County officers are expected be trained in using it by April.

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