St. Paul's Officer of the Year is Robert Zink

St. Paul's 'autism cop' named Officer of the Year

When Robert Zink became the St. Paul Police Officer of the Year on Thursday, he was surrounded by many of the people who got him there.

 

There was 13-year-old Gerry, one of Zink’s two sons who have autism. It was Zink’s knowledge as a parent and a police officer that led a St. Paul police commander to ask him to look for better ways to work with young people who have autism.

There was the group of moms of autistic children, whom Zink invited to attend Thursday’s ceremony and with whom he started the Cops Autism Response Education (CARE) program.

And there was Police Chief Thomas Smith, who influenced Zink’s decision in the 1990s to become a police officer, and who presented him with the award.

Zink’s peers nominated him to become Officer of the Year for “his tenacity, initiative and educational efforts,” Smith said, adding, “His dedication to helping others understand autism is commendable.”

Smith named Officer Tony Holter as Detective of the Year and Rosanna Caswell as Civilian Employee of the Year.

“We’re honoring folks that have gone above and beyond. … to really say to folks that are out there on the line, that are doing hard work, that we appreciate what you’re doing and that we appreciate particularly that you lead by example,” said Mayor Chris Coleman.

For Zink, the path to becoming Officer of the Year was initially a tough one.

He became a St. Paul officer in 1998 but was having a difficult time after two years on the job. He told fellow officer and friend Gerald Vick that he was going to quit. Vick came to his house in the middle of the night, talking to him and convincing him to stay. Five years later, Vick was murdered.

In recent years, Zink has been training St. Paul officers about interactions with people who have autism. And he also has worked with families of autistic children to improve contacts with police.

Families, group homes and schools often call on officers to respond when a person with autism is having “sensory overload and gets out of control,” said Zink, who is a patrol officer. But an autistic person’s sensitivity to lights, sounds and touch can make a traditional response problematic from the start, if officers arrive with their squads’ emergency lights and sirens on.

“He’s a lifesaver,” said Charlene Wilford, one of the moms who attended Thursday’s ceremony. Zink has found her son, who is now 13, when he’s run away and “he was able to communicate with him in a way that he would feel OK to come to him instead of continuing to run,” she said.

When the St. Paul police have a first call involving a young person with autism, Zink said he or other CARE officers will follow up with the family in the days afterward.

“The first contact is overwhelming, it’s crisis mode, so we need to come back so the kids understand the cops aren’t the big scary blue guys,” Zink said, referring to the blue uniforms St. Paul officers wear.

Zink’s work has been recognized nationally and some departments are working with him to develop their own programs, Smith said.

Smith and Zink first met when Zink was in college, working overnights at a St. Paul hotel and Smith was an off-duty officer at the hotel. When the hotel was robbed at gunpoint in 1991, Zink, another hotel clerk and Smith ran after the robber. Zink and the clerk jumped on the robber’s car as he fled, and Zink was thrown from the hood.

Twenty-five years later, Zink looked down at the pronounced scar on his finger, which was nearly torn off during the mishap, and thought about the significance of Smith being the one to name him Officer of the Year. Thursday’s ceremony was Smith’s last as police chief because he is retiring in May.

“And here he is, giving his last award for Officer of Year, and it’s to me, the person he got into this line of work,” Zink said.

If you go

What: Cops Autism Response Education community carnival for families affected by autism. Activities geared toward families with youth in kindergarten through middle school. Free and no registration required.
When: April 19, 4-7 p.m.
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
More info: Contact sppd-autism@ci.stpaul.mn.us

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