A 12-year-old boy with autism who was chest-deep in a retention pond was rescued by two Columbus police officers who used specialized training to bring him to safety.

Caleb Arnold, who only speaks a little, was shaken up but didn’t have a scratch after the officers waded into the pond in the 5000 block of Victory Drive on the city’s northeast side at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, said his mother, Paula Arnold.

The officers, who had received training on interacting with people who have autism, asked the mother several important questions as they approached the boy in the water, including how he might respond to the volume of their voices and whether he would allow the officers to touch him.

Capt. Brian Wilder and officer Tony Kummer have Paula Arnold’s gratitude and respect for how they helped her son, she said.

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“This is showing their dedication to keeping that boy safe, and keeping the whole community safe,” she said. “There are no words that I can use to say thanks other than to say that we need everyone to respect and be grateful to our police department.”

The Arnolds, who have lived in Lincoln Village for about 12 years, have placed key locks on doors throughout their home to prevent Caleb from leaving without their knowledge, his mother said.

“I secure the house as best I can, but this smart child figures out how to get out,” she said.

What happened

On Sunday, she had given Caleb a shower, and placed him in a secure area of the home as she went to change her clothes, which had gotten wet, she said.

In that time, Caleb opened a front window, kicked out a screen and left the home, which is south of 25th Street in the Lincoln Village area. A neighbor saw Caleb leave and told his mother.

Paula Arnold went running to find him, first to 25th Street and then further north to the Flat Rock River, also on the north side of 25th Street, she said. Caleb has been known to be attracted to water, and had gone there before, she said. When she couldn’t find him there, she called 911.

“Unbeknowst to me, the concerned citizens of Columbus were watching out and were calling 911,” she said. “I praise God for these people.”

The first report to police from a passerby was that a child was running near traffic in the area of 25th Street and Lockerbie Drive, said Lt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police Department spokesman.

Wilder, who was off-duty but near the area, went to look for the boy and saw Caleb, who was wearing only underwear, running toward a nearby residential neighborhood north of 25th Street, Harris said.

More officers, including Kummer, arrived as Caleb went toward a water tower on Victory Drive, which is just past Columbus Skateland, and through a wooded area toward houses that surround the nearby retention pond.

Kummer said he began following Caleb, walking behind him and quietly calling his name, as he knew that some individuals with autism respond with fright when confronted with loud noises or by being chased.

After he confirmed with officers that Caleb did have autism, Kummer asked that all officers cut their sirens as they traveled to the scene to avoid scaring the boy.

Kummer followed Caleb through a wooded area and around two houses, where he briefly lost sight of him, and jogged to keep up. It was then he saw Caleb approach the water and go into the retention pond.

Taking off his shirt, vest, gun belt and boots, Kummer said he tried to take off everything that might weigh him down in the water.

“I thought the middle would be deeper,” he said.

Kummer said he had not done this type of rescue before and did not consider himself a strong swimmer, but notified water rescue for help and waded in along with Wilder to rescue the boy.

“I felt confident I could get him out,” Kummer said.

Paula Arnold said most people don’t know that the number-one cause of death for people with autism is drowning. She had Caleb in special swim classes at Donner Park since he was 5 years old and Caleb can float and stay above water, she said. However, the two officers weren’t sure of that as they moved toward him in the water.

When the officers arrived, Caleb was about 4 yards into the retention pond, chest-deep in water, she said. At one point, he did float in the water, she said. Officers estimated the boy was in about 5 feet of water when they approached.

Caleb is about 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs about 160 pounds, which his mother acknowledges is bigger than the average 12-year-old.

Kummer said he was particularly concerned that Caleb might go below the surface and officers would not be able to find him.

“He continued to go further into the pond,” Kummer said.

Rescue plan

Officers spoke with Paula Arnold first, confirming that he could not handle loud noises or voices and that he would allow officers to touch him.

Wilder and Kummer entered the water with a flotation rope and surrounded the boy, bringing him out of the water, Harris said.

“We just tried to touch him as gently as we could,” Kummer said. “I grabbed him as safely as I could.”

“When they approached Caleb, they were very gentle,” Paula Arnold said. “He did fight them, but they restrained him very gently. Our police department could not have done any better.”

In other parts of the country, children and adults with autism have been tackled or tased by police officers when they have not understood how individuals react to certain situations.

“Every child with autism is different,” Paula Arnold said. “These officers knew what questions to ask.”

Emergency medical technicians were also sent to the scene, but Caleb was petrified at that point and used sign language with his mother to ask to go home, she said.

On Monday, Caleb met Kummer again at the Columbus police station and the two exchanged a high five as Paula Arnold looked on with a smile at her son, and his ability to interact with one of his rescuers.

She was surprised to learn on Monday that Kummer’s fiance is a teacher at Central Middle School, where Caleb attends school.

Kummer graduated from Columbus North High School in 2010 and received his criminal justice degree from Franklin College in 2014. He’s been on the department about two years.

Paula Arnold said she thought the police, and particularly Kummer and Wilder, were a blessing to her son and to their family.

“I know I can call them and they will be very sensitive,” she said. “I trust them.”

Kummer said he relied on training to guide his actions during Caleb’s rescue and said he was grateful for that.

“It easily could have turned out differently,” Kummer said. “It means the world to me, to know he’s still here.”

Pull Quote

“This is showing their dedication to keeping that boy safe, and keeping the whole community safe. There are no words that I can use to say thanks other than to say that we need everyone to respect and be grateful to our police department.”

— Paula Arnold, mother of 12-year-old Caleb Arnold, rescued from a retention pond by Columbus Police Department officers

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.