#CultOfCompliance – Autistic Boy Tasered by Police

The White House is hosting a forum today on disability and criminal justice. They are announcing the “AVID prison project.” Here’s a press release with live-streaming information. Here’s a useful summary from the Center for American Progress. I’ll write more tomorrow, plan to watch the stream as much as possible, and will be engaged on Twitter.

Over the weekend, I’ve been following the case of an autistic teen who was tasered in Burbank, CA. His mother was pulled over in a traffic stop (no reason for the stop has been announced, to my knowledge) when the officer noticed the teen wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. The officer demanded compliance and the situation escalated. Here’s coverage from the LA Times and an interview with Tawnya Nevarez, the boy’s mother.

Lots to unpack. Overall, my take remains: Compliance-based policing endangers people with disabilities.  People of color are at much higher risk of encountering police and being forced to comply. The #1 reform I propose for policing is to teach officers NOT to take non-compliance as justifying escalation absent other threat indicators (and to hold them accountable when they ignore this training).

Here are the details:

In an interview earlier this week, the boy’s mother Tawnya Nevarez said through tears that she repeatedly warned the officer that her son was autistic while apologizing for his unresponsiveness.

“How is it that this routine seatbelt traffic stop turns into a parent’s worst nightmare?” said attorney and autism advocate Areva Martin. “Son on the ground, pepper-sprayed and tased, despite her consistent pleas about his developmental disorder.”

So let’s start here: This is a Mexican family. An officer noticed there was a teen in the car not wearing a seatbelt, so pulled them over. Would this happen to a white family? It’s hard to prove the counterfactual, but I instantly engage such incidents through the lens of the routine use of traffic stops to over police minority families. As we saw in the Philando Castile killing, such moments of contact can easily escalate into violence. When disability is involved, moreover, the demands for compliance rapidly become incredibly dangerous. I’m glad the boy wasn’t shot.

Moreover, I’m struck by the seatbelt issues. My son has had a hard time with seatbelts at various stages of his development, often – we suspected – related to sensory discomfort of the belt pressing against his chest. I don’t know whether that’s in play here, but it could be.

According to Burbank police, the officer stopped Nevarez just before 4:30 p.m. near Burbank Boulevard and Hollywood Way after noticing the front passenger, the teenage boy, was not wearing a seatbelt.

The teen told the officer that he forgot to put it on, while his mother, the driver, said she was in a rush to get somewhere, police said.

During the stop, the teen began to argue with his mother and the officer, at one point indicating that he wanted to fight the officer “hand-to-hand,” said Burbank Police Sgt. Claudio Losacco.

Nevarez said Wednesday that during the stop, she asked the officer to step back so she could calm her son down, but the officer would not move.

According to police, the officer, who’s been with the department for four years, explained that everyone is required to wear a seatbelt.

We need to hear the audio recording. I’d like to know when the mother said “autism” and how the officer reacted.

After the boy interrupted him with “inflammatory dialogue,” the officer decided to “deescalate” the situation by returning the driver’s license to the mother with a warning instead of a citation, Losacco said.

The officer then asked the teenager to put his seatbelt on. He reportedly responded that he would only do so when the officer walked away. When the officer stepped back, the boy put on his seatbelt.

According to police, sometime after the boy put his seatbelt on, he removed it and told the officer he was going to “fight him right now,” kicking the car door open into the officer’s knees. He then reportedly dared the officer to call for backup while his mother tried to keep him in the car.

Things get out of control.

Eventually he got out of the car, police said, took off his sweatshirt and approached the officer in a fighting stance, telling the officer to pepper spray him.

The officer used pepper spray, but it didn’t have an effect on the teenager, who then punched the officer multiple times, knocking off his glasses, Losacco said. At that point, the officer shot him with a Taser and handcuffed him.

Nevarez, a single mother of three, said that her 14-year-old daughter was also pepper-sprayed, and her 3-year-old niece was also in the car. Police said the teenage girl got out of the car during her brother’s confrontation with police and was struck by residual pepper spray.

After the incident, we have the following:

After the boy was medically cleared at a local hospital, he was admitted to a mental health facility, police said. Police said they have not independently verified the boy’s disorder.

On Friday, the teen was reportedly booked on suspicion of assaulting a peace officer, fighting in public, obstructing a peace officer and battery of a police officer.

“The goal with the charges is not to prosecute this child, it is not to incarcerate him, it is not to cause him further grief,” Losacco said. “It is to actually to get him some services.”

“Was admitted” is a very euphemistic way of saying the child was incarcerated in a mental health facility.  It’s not a jail, but it’s still incarceration. And then this “get him some services” line – Is there any reason to think he’s not receiving all the services he needs, and that absent this police officer, he’d be fine?

Bottom Line: We need the audio recording. There’s likely going to be a lawsuit, so it’ll come out. Often, police escalate in the face of non-compliance, which doesn’t seem to be the case here. Instead, it seems that the officer made a stop (for legal reasons) and, even when informed of the child’s diagnosis, ordered compliance. When the child got belligerent, the officer did try to disengage, but by then it was too late. I suspect he’ll be exonerated in any suit.

But even without knowing the details, we can know this: Compliance-based policing endangers people with disabilities.

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