(CN) — Suing the Buckeye, Arizona, police officer who beat up their autistic 14-year-old while he was playing with a piece of string in a public park, the boy’s parents say department brass justified it by saying the boy’s repetitive behavior indicated that he was “under the influence of an inhalant.”
Kevin and Danielle Leibel brought their federal complaint Wednesday against Buckeye, its police department and Officer David Grossman on behalf of their son, Connor, in Phoenix, seeking punitive damages on nine counts, including battery, excessive force, negligence, failure to train and illegal arrest. They also sued Police Chief Larry Hall and Lt. Charles Arlak.
Buckeye, pop. 65,000, is a western suburb of Phoenix.
The Leibels claim Grossman had no training in autism and admitted it when Connor’s caretaker asked him after she interrupted the assault. The family says Connor was “forcibly restrained, slammed against a tree, and pinned to the ground by” Grossman.
“Connor was doing nothing illegal,” the complaint continues; “he was ‘stimming’ with a piece of string, a common behavior that many people with autism use to cope with their environment.”
Stimming, or self-stimulation — repetitive behavior or sounds — is a fairly common behavior among autistic people and people with other developmental disorders. It “provides people with autism with a sense of calm and helps them cope with their surroundings,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
About 2 million U.S. citizens are believed to have a form of autism, which is known as a spectrum disorder, because of the great variation in the intensity of its symptoms.
The Courthouse News database contains seven lawsuits since 2015 accusing police officers around the country of mistreating people with autism.
Connor’s caretaker, Diane Craglow, left Connor alone briefly in a public park on July 19, 2017 — as she had done many times before — to cross the street and inquire about piano lessons for Connor’s sister. While she was gone, Grossman drove by in an unmarked black pickup and saw Connor playing with a piece of string, the Leibels say in the complaint, which contains graphic photos of the injuries Connor was about to suffer.
“Grossman saw Connor ‘stimming’ and claims that he mistook that behavior for illegal drug use,” the complaint states. It adds: “The Buckeye Police Department (‘BPD’) considers Grossman a ‘drug recognition expert’ despite never having trained him on behavior, like stimming, that does not constitute a sign or symptom of drug use.”
Grossman, wearing a body camera, approached Connor and asked what he was doing. The Leibels say the defendants have unredacted footage of the encounter, which proceeded like this:
“Upon reaching Connor, Grossman asked him what he was doing.
“Connor responded, ‘Me? Good.’
“Grossman again asked Connor what he was doing.
“Connor answered accurately: ‘I’m stimming.’
“Grossman answered: ‘What?’
“Connor again told Grossman that he was stimming, stating accurately: ‘I stim with this,’ while holding up a piece of string for Grossman to see.”
Grossman, unaware what stimming meant, and having no training in autism, “escalate(d) the encounter,” slamming Connor against a tree, wrestling him to the ground and pinning him “with his full body weight,” to which Connor responded by saying, “I can’t breathe,” according to the complaint.
Caretaker Craglow returned then and told Grossman that Connor had autism, but Grossman continued to pin him to the ground, the complaint states.
“Ms. Craglow then asked him: ‘You don’t know anything about autism, huh?’
“Grossman replied: ‘No.’
“Another officer then arrived at the scene, at which point Grossman allowed Connor to get off the ground,” according to the complaint.
Connor suffered cuts, bruises and scratches to his face, back and arms from the attack, and a grotesquely swollen ankle, which required surgeries.
The Leibels filed a complaint with the police, which “admitted that Grossman ‘has not been trained in handling special needs people or mentally ill persons,’” the complaint states.
In a news conference, Buckeye police “justified Grossman’s actions as those of ‘an officer who encountered a subject who was displaying behavior that he believed may have been of a subject who was under the influence of an inhalant,’” according to the complaint.
It adds: “The BPD made these statements despite knowing that the body camera footage showed Connor twice showing Grossman the piece of string in his hand and informing Grossman that he was ‘stimming.’”
The Leibels say the police department did not discipline Grossman, despite the fact that “Grossman had been disciplined for a host of misconduct, from illegal arrests to false reports to failure to act to abandoning his duty as a police officer,” which incidents are detailed in the 25-page complaint, with 10 additional pages of exhibits.
The Leibels seek compensatory and punitive damages, civil penalties, a corrective injunction ordering Buckeye police to train officers on how to interact with people with disabilities, attorneys’ fees and costs of suit. They are represented by Timothy Scott of Scott Trial Lawyers in San Diego and Kevin Burns with Burns, Nickerson & Taylor, of Phoenix.
The Leibels’ lawsuit was published to Courthouse News subscribers after office hours Wednesday evening. None of the parties could be reached for comment before office hours Thursday.