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Project Guardian: Mattawa police start program to ensure positive interactions with the developmentally disabled

by GABRIEL DAVIS
Staff Writer | January 10, 2024 1:35 AM

MATTAWA — The Mattawa Police Department has begun implementing a program called Project Guardian intended to help members of the department be better trained and equipped to interact with individuals with special needs, according to a presentation during Thursday’s regular Mattawa City Council meeting. 

School Resource Officer Alex Zesati presented the program to the council, with Mayor Maria Celaya introducing the topic. 

“Richland Police Department and Yakima Police Department have adopted this program, and I did some research on it and Officer Zesati is making it happen in our community,” Celaya said. 

The program was created in Virginia, Zesati said.

“So this is a project that I was tasked to go ahead and handle and try to implement it here in the city. The mayor had brought it to the Police Department's attention and it's definitely a great idea to have here,” Zesati said. “The project is called Project Guardian. The background of Project Guardian (is) it was initially based and developed at the Newport News Police Department. It was specifically focused toward children with autism. The program is also being used here in the state of Washington in the Yakima and Pasco Police Departments. They actually focus on any individual with special needs.”

Zesati outlined the basics of the project. 

“Officers are given (Crisis Intervention Team) training and other specialized training in dealing with people with special needs. These officers oftentimes have to adapt to interact with these individuals with no background information,” Zesati said. “The project guardian program, allows the families of persons with special needs to register their loved ones and provide detailed information and photos to assist the police before contact is initiated.”

The program is a database of special needs individuals. 

“The way that it works is the Mattawa Police Department will use our Spillman (software) database,” Zesati said. “Families of special needs persons will fill out an application, which includes special instructions on their loved ones and a current photograph – the photograph is a passport-size photograph. We are currently looking at options to add an application link on the police and city websites, and the information in Spillman will give officers detailed information on how to approach and/or deal with these individuals.”

The project uses additional means to help officers identify individuals with special needs before making contact in the community. 

“Part of Project Guardian involves the use of vinyl stickers that can be placed in the front window of their residence or vehicle. Each participant will receive two stickers when they register,” Zesati said. “These stickers will be used to alert first responders of the possibility of the typical behaviors of the occupants, both during home visits or during traffic incidents.”

Zesati detailed some of the information the register would contain regarding the special needs individuals. 

“Our goal is to have this information updated every year, as an individual may change their appearance. It can be anyone from a child to an adult. So as part of the application, some of the questions asked are what are his or her favorite toys, objects, music, dislikes? How do they communicate? Is he or she verbal or non-verbal? What types of behaviors should be expected? The best way to approach him or her. Does he or she have any triggers or sensitivities like the lights, sirens or loud radio devices? ... What works best to reduce stress or calm him or her down?”

The program is not limited to children or Mattawa citizens. 

“My plan is to (include) not only people within the city limits of Mattawa but people in the surrounding areas,” Zesati said. “We do have people that come in here and shop at our local stores, so if one of the officers does a traffic stop or runs into an incident involving a vehicle and we see the sticker, then we have an idea of what we're dealing with.”

The department already has plans on how to begin building the register. 

“I've connected with LaDonna Fogle, she's the (Special Education) Director at the Wahluke School District. We figured we would have her get a hold of families with special needs children and start with them, to see if they'd be interested,” Zesati said. “She stated that she would conduct a meeting where I would also do a presentation there, sometime in mid or late January, and hopefully, if that goes well, we have some people that are willing to participate.”

Gabriel Davis may be reached at gdavis@columbiabasinherald.com. A resident of Othello, Davis covers the cities of Othello, Warden and Mattawa.

    Francisco Araiza of the Mattawa Police Department hands out stickers to children at the 2022 National Night Out. The Project Guardian program, presented at Thursday’s Mattawa City Council meeting, will help Mattawa officers deal with community members, both adults and children, who have special needs.
 
 
    A Mattawa Police Department patrol car sits beside the Mattawa City Hall and Police Department building. Project Guardian, aimed at helping officers interact with special needs individuals, will provide information about those with developmental disabilities before officers make contact during home visits or traffic stops.