SE Minn. jail team trains for developmentally disabled detainees

"It's scary to go to jail for anybody, but then you add somebody who doesn't really understand what's happening, and that makes it even scarier," said Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Macey Tesmer

Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Macey Tesmer
Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Macey Tesmer pages through a booklet to help developmentally disabled detainees understand what's happening.
Mark Wasson / Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — An interaction between an Olmsted County detention deputy and a detainee was not going well.

But this wasn't a case of someone bucking authority in the jail. Instead, the inmate was autistic, and the behaviors the detainee exhibited, which could easily be misunderstood as defiance, were actually just miscommunication.

Fortunately, the situation was brought to the attention of Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Macey Tesmer, who immediately thought of a cousin who is developmentally disabled, and realized the interaction was one that might occur if her cousin was brought to jail.

Tesmer's cousin isn't always the most talkative person, and when you're brought into a jail setting, you're asked a lot of questions: Who's your mom? Who's your dad? Where were you born? What's your ethnicity?

"There's no way that she would be able to answer those questions, and then she would get frustrated and more nervous and more anxious and then less willing to communicate," Tesmer said.


Building a team

Starting with four team members in 2019, the specially trained staff has grown to 15 out of about 99 Olmsted County jail personnel. A majority of the team either are deputies who have a background involved in helping disabled people or who have disabled family members.

Tesmer and Sheriff's Office staff began to develop a plan to train deputies, but they ran into a roadblock; most of the current training available focuses on working with clients in the community, not in a detention setting.

The Sheriff's Office was able to work with Olmsted County Social Services to provide initial overview training and eventually was able to get training from the University of Minnesota through a program called DirectCourse . School staff were able to look through their catalog and pick out classes that could benefit the team.

Olmsted County Adult Detention Center booking area
Olmsted County Adult Detention Center booking area
Mark Wasson / Post Bulletin

It gives staff additional information, which is helpful, but it's still not the ideal training for jail staff, Tesmer said.

While some law enforcement training is geared toward interacting with autistic individuals, that's about all they have found.

"Our biggest challenge has been how do we take bits and pieces of what we can get, that's available to us, and apply that to what we do," Tesmer said. "Because it is a very different environment than working with somebody in a group home."

Touching and questions can be confusing for developmentally disabled people, so working to make sure detainees understand what's happening is a key factor in success.

"If they have to stay in custody, how do we get this person to do a strip search? That's traumatic enough for a normal individual who doesn't have any developmental disabilities," Tesmer said. "So then, how do we get them through that?"


This is why detainee staff have a manual with pictures that will walk a person who is entering the facility through what is happening and why.

"It's scary to go to jail for anybody, but then you add somebody who doesn't really understand what's happening, and that makes it even scarier," Tesmer said. "So we want to try and be able to get them through the process with as little interruption for them as possible."

It's much different when someone is under the influence, Tesmer said; you can have them go sleep for a while and that may help.

Olmsted County Adult Detention Center staff provide several items to developmentally disabled detainees to help calm nerves.
Mark Wasson / Post Bulletin

"But somebody who has a developmental disability, that little nap isn't going to make a difference," Tesmer said.

New approaches

According to Tesmer, it's all about slowing things down and taking the time to communicate with someone. Her office provides fidget spinners and weighted blankets to help calm nerves, as well.

There are also two social workers who are embedded in the jail who can help identify what might be happening with someone who is locked up. Jail staff are able to input that information into a national database accessible to law enforcement, so if there is another interaction with police and that person, officers can know beforehand that the situation they're walking into might need a different set of tactics.

The program is working, according to Tesmer, with the team focusing on individual needs and what might help the process along. Sometimes it's getting headphones for a person who likes music. Sometimes it's letting a detainee who's leaving keep one of the fidget spinners.

"I’m very excited about this team," Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin. "It has already paid dividends in the sense that it has allowed our staff to work with the detainees as they come in, in a place where they are at and the challenges they may have regardless of the challenges of incarceration, even if it is temporary."


Real-world incidents

Incidents involving people who react differently to police orders can happen outside the jail setting, as well. Recently, Rochester police officers were called to a spot on the river behind the Government Center early on March 7 to help assist the Rochester Fire Department with a man who was walking in the river.

He refused to get off the ice shelf and wasn't cooperating with RFD personnel.

LISTEN: Capt. Macey Tesmer talks about detention team staff experiences with developmentally disabled people

"He basically wouldn’t listen to what first responders were communicating to him, nor was he communicating back to first responders," RPD Capt. Casey Moilanen wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin.

Fire personnel asked an RPD officer to suit up and go out to the ice shelf to try to get the man back to shore for medical care.

"RFD felt the subject was in immediate danger to himself — he was soaking wet, and it was only about 30 degrees outside," Moilanen wrote.

While the man behaved the same way toward the RPD officer, both agencies were eventually able to get him out of the river without incident and he was taken to Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys Campus.

"The Rochester Police Department values the sanctity of human life for both our community members and our staff. We make every effort to provide the training, equipment, supervision and procedures that will increase the probability that each incident we respond to can be resolved safely for everyone involved," Moilanen said.

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at
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