dark cell phone phone call

A new smartphone app now used by Scott County has saved lives elsewhere, its developers told local officials this week.

The Scott County Sheriff’s Office announced earlier this month it signed on to use Vitals, which allows people with varying developmental, physical, behavioral and intellectual abilities or mental health issues to share information on their conditions and personalized de-escalation techniques.

The app uses a wearable beacon, either a wallet-sized card or fob, to alert first responders when they’re within 80 feet of a Vitals user. Police officers and others can access the person’s profile on their phones and customize their response to the situation.

The Twin Cities-based app can help avoid tragic conclusions to high-intensity situations, Vitals Chief of Communications Stan Alleyne said Tuesday during a presentation to about 30 people at the Scott County Government Center.

Alleyne’s 15-year-old son, Justin, is among the app’s users, he said. The teen was diagnosed around first grade with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety.

Incidents in school would frequently escalate because staff didn’t understand his son’s triggers, Alleyne said — so much so that one incident ended with Justin in plastic handcuffs because school staff were concerned he might hurt someone.

“I’ve created an 80-foot virtual wall around him to give people time to think about what’s going on,” Alleyne said.

Sheriff Luke Hennen said his department signed a 3-year contract with the app and has registered 41 deputies, sergeants and detectives to be a part of the program. That brings the total cost of participation to about $4,900 a year.

“Conditions such as mental illness, intellectual disabilities or an autism spectrum disorder are often invisible, giving no clues to a responding deputy that the situation may need to be handled in a different way,” Hennen said in a statement. “The Vitals App will help bridge this communication gap, providing a safer experience for all involved.”

Scott County joins the list of 24 departments in the metro area to use the app, including the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, Hennepin County Sheriff Office, Lakeville Police, Chaska Police, St. Paul Police, and University of Minnesota Police.

The app has helped Marcus Abrams, a 20-year old with Asperger’s syndrome from St. Paul, Caldwell’s mother said in a video for the Vitals company.

Abrams and police had encountered each other several times before a forceful arrest by Metro Transit police in 2016 resulted in Abrams suffering two seizures and injuries to his face and head. In another incident a year later, officers used an electric stun gun on Abrams multiple times.

Vitals signed the Abrams family up to test the app. When St. Paul Police responded to his school later that year, they got an alert on how best to treat Abrams and de-escalated the situation.

“Vitals is a lifesaver,” Maria Caldwell, Abrams’ mother, said in the video. “Without this I think I would be a mother grieving my child instead of celebrating life with my child.”

Several audience members, including the head of the county’s Adult Services department and the supervisor of the county’s mobile mental health crisis team, said the app could be helpful for area homeless shelters, mental health facilities and within their own families.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is a regional reporter covering Scott County for Southwest News Media.

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