Special to the Independent
Senator DiDomenico joined all Massachusetts Senators in unanimously passing An Act facilitating better interactions between police officers and persons with autism spectrum disorder—also known as the “Blue Envelope” bill—to improve communication during traffic stops involving a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The bill would create a voluntary program that would make available blue envelopes that people with autism could carry with them while driving and hand over to a police officer in the event that they are pulled over. A driver could place their license, registration, and insurance cards inside the envelope, and the outside of the envelope would note that the driver has Autism Spectrum Disorder and provide guidance on best practices on how to interact with the individual.
The envelope’s guidance—which would be created by a coalition of advocates, Chiefs of Police, and the RMV—would help law enforcement officers to better understand the actions of individuals with autism, who are more likely to have increased sensitivities and communication challenges in stressful situations.
“This legislation will improve communication and interactions between law enforcement officers and our neighbors with autism which will improve public safety for everyone,” said Sal DiDomenico, Assistant Majority Leader of the Massachusetts Senate. “I am proud to support this commonsense measure that has garnered support from a wide range of groups, including advocates and our law enforcement community, and will continue to make our state safer for our residents. Thank you, Senate President Spilka and Senator Comerford for getting this legislation the attention and urgency it deserves.”
“In Massachusetts, we stand firmly in our belief that every person is entitled to equal treatment in their lives, regardless of their background or life experience. For our neuro-diverse friends and neighbors with Autism Spectrum Disorder, that means empowering each other to reach our full potential,” said Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “Today’s action in the Senate would make a common-sense, meaningful, and positive change to how people with Autism Spectrum Disorder interact with members of our law enforcement community, bringing us closer to the ideals we strive for. I am grateful to Senator Comerford for bringing this bill to the floor, as well as Chair Rodrigues and Chair Crighton for their support in the committee process.”
Many people with autism display no physical markers to alert others to their disability. Without adequate training, it is possible that law enforcement could misread the actions of an individual with autism. Every year, numerous people with Autism Spectrum Disorder suffer psychological trauma and physical injury as a result of such misunderstandings.
The bill has wide support from Autism Spectrum Disorder advocates and law enforcement organizations around the state.
“The Arc of Massachusetts and Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts (AFAM) are grateful to Senator Comerford, Senate President Spilka and Chairman Rodrigues for passing the Blue Envelope bill, a priority bill for our advocacy organizations,” said Maura Sullivan, Director of Government Affairs for The Arc of Massachusetts. “This bill will ease interactions between police and autistic drivers. We know these situations can escalate and become traumatic or even dangerous. The Arc and AFAM applaud the Senate for taking action to be inclusive of the needs of the drivers with autism in Massachusetts.”
“The Blue Envelope Bill would be a game changer for our family and for so many Massachusetts residents. Like many people with autism, my 25-year-old son Sam does not have any physical characteristics that indicate he has autism,” said Ilyse Levine-Kanji, an Executive Committee member of Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts (AFAM). “In a stressful situation, where split second decisions must be made, I’m relieved that a police officer could see a blue envelope in Sam’s car and immediately understand that any unusual behavior or speech pattern is a result of autism. Thus, this bill could dramatically decrease the possibility of a tragic misunderstanding. Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts is extremely grateful for Senator Comerford’s leadership in introducing and championing this common-sense initiative, and to the Senate for moving so quickly to pass the bill.”
During the bill’s hearing before the Transportation Committee, the Massachusetts State Police Association and a representative of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association testified in favor of the bill.
“Massachusetts police officers conduct thousands of traffic stops each year. While most of these interactions are relatively ‘routine,’ officers do not know who they are interacting with before the traffic stop, so they proceed with caution,” said Tyrone Parham, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief of Police at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “There are many potential communication conflicts with police officers during traffic stops and perspectives offered by those on the autism spectrum. The introduction of the blue envelope under stressful interactions will provide immediate information and context to the officer as they begin to communicate. Traffic stops are some of the most dangerous citizen interactions by police and this additional information gleaned by the Blue Envelope will be extremely helpful. I am extremely enthusiastic and grateful for the passing of this imperative legislation. Our Commonwealth drivers on the autism spectrum will be able to quickly and confidently present the blue envelope the next time they are pulled over during a routine traffic stop. This will be instrumental to help bridge the communication gap for both motorists and police officers.”
Similar legislation has been adopted in other states, including Connecticut, and has been shown to reduce stress, facilitate better communication, and improve safety.
Having been passed by the Senate, the legislation now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration.