A police officer in Arizona thought he saw fourteen-year-old Connor Leibel acting suspiciously and got out of his car to investigate. What happened next resulted in the autistic teenager’s family filing a lawsuit against the city of Buckeye, the Buckeye police department, and the police officer involved.
David Grossman, the police officer who tackled Leibel, is considered to be a drug-recognition expert in his department. He said he drove by multiple times and saw that the boy had something in his hand and was bringing his hand to his mouth.
He thought the boy was inhaling drugs and when he asked what he was doing, Leibel replied, “I’m stimming.” Grossman approached the boy and he stepped away, which made Officer Grossman more concerned.
Grossman asks Leibel for his ID, which Leibel didn’t have. When the boy tried to walk away, the officer grabbed him and pinned his hands behind his back.
As an autistic teen, Leibel panicked and tried to get the officer to let go of his arms which resulted in a series of quick movements in which Leibel was thrown to the ground with the officer on top of him. You can hear the child panicking in the video as he screams and repeatedly says “I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK.”
During the encounter, the autistic teenager can be heard asking for help and even responds to the officer’s question of did he understand with a faint “no.”
Leibel doesn’t stop moving, to which the officer responds repeatedly telling him to be still and using additional force. The boy’s caretaker, Diane Craglow, walks up to find the boy on the ground and the police officer on top of him.
Craglow explained to the police officer that the string was used in stimming, which is a coping mechanism for autism. The officer continues his conversation with Craglow as she explains the boy’s condition. While the officer appears to defend why he was detaining the teenager, his caretaker notes the officer clearly doesn’t have much experience with autism.
Grossman lets the boy up and you can see the handcuffs fall to the ground as he asks Craglow for her own ID.
This incident happened in July of 2017, but the family just filed suit in court this week. According to Court House News, Leibel’s family filed for punitive damages involving battery, excessive force, negligence, failure to train, and illegal arrest. The family also wants civil penalties and a corrective injunction to happen within the police department, so officers know how to deal with special needs.
The Buckeye Police Department is standing behind their officer’s actions stating that “within 20 seconds of contact, Connor goes to run from the officer. The officer holds on to him and they fall to the ground. There’s no escalation of force at that point.”
The Leibels argue in their claim that the officer had a history of poor conduct with the police department, noting that there was evidence of this in his personnel file. The family says that the teenager had cuts, scratches, and bruises on his face, arms, and back as well as a very swollen ankle that required surgeries. What’s worse is that Connor can’t stop reliving the events and now is constantly in fear of the police and adult men in general.
The Buckeye Police Department argue that the use of force was justified and cleared the officer of any wrongdoing shortly after the incident. A detective with the department told CBS News he hopes that the family can see they are only human and will use this incident as a learning experience and they can’t possibly know everything about every disorder out there.
The PD has since issued a voluntary registry program where individuals with disorders that affect their behavior can register and wear a colored wristband for self-identification.
This incident and body cam footage is a prime example of why police departments need proper training on how to approach and interact with individuals with autism, as well as any other special needs. To someone with knowledge of autism, it is clear the boy is afraid and has no idea what is going on in the video. Oftentimes, an officer – or any person stranger or otherwise – can make a situation worse by touching a person with autism. While it isn’t true of all individuals with autism, some react badly to physical contact.
Moreover, the teenager mentioned he was “stimming” to the officer which any officer with autism training would have recognized or at least understood the term.
According to Autism Speaks, proper police protocol is not always the best way to handle someone with autism.
“Because police are usually the first to respond to an emergency, it is critical that these officers have a working knowledge of autism, and the wide variety of behaviors individuals with autism can exhibit in emergency situations.”
This type of police training includes teaching responders to recognize signs of autism as some individuals may not be able to tell the officer they are autistic. Moreover, wearing colored medical bracelets to alert of a disability also isn’t a perfect solution as – for sensory issues – many individuals may not be able to wear the bracelet.
Editor’s note: a previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that the officer had placed the teen in handcuffs. The Inquisitr regrets this error.