How a NJ Police Officer Helped a Non-Verbal Teen With Autism Express Himself

PHOTO:Franklin Township Police Officer Richard Hartnett helped 16-year-old Zion Westbrook, who is non-verbal and has autism, get a tablet with a special application for communication.
PlayFranklin Township Police Department
WATCH Police Help Non-Verbal Teen With Autism to Express Himself

After Zion Westbrook -- who is non-verbal and has autism -- recently ran away from home again due to frustrations communicating his thoughts and feelings, the responding police officer who helped find him decided he needed to do more to help.

"We've been to the residence numerous times, and when we brought him back again, I decided to ask his mom if there was anything special she needed or anything we could do to help prevent Westbrook from running away again," said Officer Richard Hartnett, an 11-year-old veteran of the Franklin Township Police Department in New Jersey.

Hartnett told ABC News that Westbrook's mother, Zimora Miller, explained to him that she believed Westbrook, 16, was frustrated that he couldn't express his thoughts and feelings to her.

She said that he had a tablet at school with a specialized app for helping kids like him communicate, but he couldn't bring it home since it was school property. As a single mother raising two kids, she didn't have the extra funds to afford to buy it herself.

Because Hartnett "couldn’t shake the feeling that he wanted to do more for this family," he spent the next few weeks working his contacts to try and get the special communication device, the Franklin Township Police Department told ABC News.

Hartnett said he got in touch with Jim O'Neill, the owner of local electronics company Electronic Enterprise, who then donated an android tablet worth $300.

The officer also connected with PBA Local 154 President Mark Rossman, and the police union covered the costs of the special communication application and a cover for the tablet, worth another estimated $300.

Miller and Westbrook received the tablet last week, and Miller told Hartnett that her son "has not put the tablet down" since he got it and that he's had an easier time expressing himself, according to Hartnett.

"He can text basically whatever he wants," Miller told ABC station WABC. "If it's 'I want some water,' and he sees the symbols, he can just press it."

She added that she was overwhelmed and so grateful for the generosity, care and understanding of the local police department, electronics store owner and the police union.

"Police work is not just about enforcing the laws, it’s about helping people," the township's police chief, Lawrence W. Roberts, said in a news release. "Officer Hartnett went above and beyond to help this family ... I am proud of the work my officers do to make this community great."