ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul police are testing a phone app that aims to de-escalate encounters with those who have disabilities that aren’t easily visible, such as autism or mental illness.

Twin Cities application developer VariAware has created the Vulnerable Individuals Technology Assisted Location Service program.

App users or their caregivers can upload personal information onto the app, including medical conditions individuals have, treatments they might need or tips on how to calm them down. Users are then given a small transmitter that sends signals to nearby phones.

Officers can activate the app and will be alerted whenever they come within about 30 feet of someone with a transmitter. It allows them to access information about individuals which can help facilitate safer interactions.

“Knowledge is the best tool a police officer can have in responding to a difficult situation,” said Todd Axtell, St. Paul police chief. “And it’s really important to have that information on the front end. That’s what this program is really about.”

The department has signed a two-year contract with VariAware. They’ll be able to use the program for free because they worked with the company for nine months during the pilot process. Other police departments will be charged $5 a month per officer

Users will pay between $9 and $15 for a beacon and an additional $10 a month for the app service.

“For me, this program means freedom,” said Jillian Nelson, an autistic adult. “It means when I walk out of the house knowing I have this card in my wallet with me all the time that I have a security net. If I have an interaction with the police department, they’re going to have that information immediately, they’re going to know how to de-escalate me.”

The project should be fully implemented in the St. Paul department by mid-September, said officer Robert J. Zink.

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