The Walton County Sheriff’s Office created a new program to improve police interactions with the public, specifically people with disabilities.
The Handle with Care Program was designed to let people disclose personal information they think deputies should know prior to traffic stops or emergencies to help them assist residents with special needs.
Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson said the program was based on the idea that sometimes the "most vulnerable members of our community" might not get the same level of service as everyone else.
“You basically tell us the information that you want us to know, and there’s really no more to it than that," Adkinson said. "This is about relationship building at the end of the day. … This is trying to help us deliver a higher level of service.”
One of his Adkinson's biggest concerns was that the program might be seen as labeling people.
"I don't see it as labeling folks like that," said Walton County Fire Rescue Chief Russell Beaty. "I mean they're voluntarily disclosing the information, and they're saying 'Hey, I do have this concern,' or 'I have this issue in my life that may cause me to need some additional assistance,' or 'I would like for you to know about that (disability) before you come to my house.'"
Adkinson gave an example of a previous domestic violence call where someone fled the scene as a deputy was arriving.
Only knowing that there was a report of loud screaming and a violent confrontation in the house, the officer chased down and tackled the man. The runner, who broke his arm in the process, was an older, mentally handicapped man who ran because he was scared.
Adkinson said this is why Handle with Care is necessary.
"Let's say for instance we have a wildfire, and I need to evacuate some areas," Beaty said. "That information being stored in our computer-aided dispatch system would help us be able to identify customers in that area that may have a special need and may require some additional assistance to evacuate."
Applicants can register for the Handle with Care program through the Walton County Sheriff’s Office’s website, Facebook page, or by calling the office directly. Once registered, members will receive a sticker to place on their car or home.