Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
The parents of a teenager with severe autism have sued a Louisiana sheriff and several deputies over allegations that officers sat on their 16-year-old son for a total of nine minutes and ultimately killed him, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.
Donna Lou and Daren Parsa took their only child, Eric, to a shopping center in Metairie, Louisiana, on January 19 of last year to play games. But when the family went to leave, Eric, who isn’t verbal, had a sudden sensory outburst in the parking lot, often called a “meltdown” and began to slap himself and his father, according to the lawsuit. With the parents’ consent, a manager called in law enforcement.
Over the course of the next 10 minutes, Eric was allegedly handcuffed and held down, and two deputies allegedly took turns putting their weight on the teen, whom the lawsuit describes as obese and not actively resisting after he was restrained. Once deputies realized he’d gone limp, according to the suit, Eric was taken to a local hospital, where he went into cardiac arrest. A coroner later ruled that Eric’s death was an accident and the result of “excited delirium,” a controversial diagnosis that often crops up in instances of police brutality. His weight, enlarged heart, and “prone positioning” were listed as contributing factors.
"Once Eric was secured, the deputies should have taken basic steps to ensure he could continue to breathe, including taking the weight off his back side, rolling him onto his side, and assigning someone to monitor his breathing,” said William Most, one of the family’s attorneys, in an email to VICE News.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office described the lawsuit as “rife with false claims and malicious accusations” in a statement to VICE News, without elaborating further. In the statement, the sheriff’s office also said deputies were trying to prevent the “violent teenager” from attacking first responders or his father.
“While the Sheriff's Office remains deeply saddened over this unfortunate loss of life, it does not intend to allow Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Deputies to be maligned and slandered by those seeking to profit from this unfortunate situation,” the sheriff’s office said a statement sent to VICE News.
The first officer to respond was off-duty Jefferson Parish Reserve Deputy Chad Pitfield, who was working as security at the shopping center. Reserve deputies work as unpaid volunteers to augment other officers. At one point during the encounter, Eric began “slapping at Pitfield” and bit him, according to the lawsuit. Pitfield, who’d been told the boy was autistic, then allegedly took the teen to the ground. That interaction was captured, in part, on bystander footage and published by WWL-TV, a CBS affiliate in New Orleans.
Pitfield, “a very large, seriously overweight adult male,” then sat on Eric while he was face-down on the ground for approximately seven minutes, according to the lawsuit.
After that, more sheriff’s office personnel began to arrive, and a second deputy took Pitfield’s place and used “his own body weight to maintain pressure,” according to the lawsuit. That deputy, Nick Vega, also allegedly placed Eric in a chokehold, although he was not resisting and was shackled. It was only when a third deputy went to switch places with Vega that “it was noticed that [Eric] had gone ‘limp’ and had urinated,” according to the lawsuit. The third deputy did not sit on Eric.
By the time deputies put Eric in a “recovery position,” he was dying, according to the lawsuit. Some deputies began to attempt CPR, although the lawsuit alleges this was done incorrectly. As Eric’s “parents watched, their only son turned blue, was foaming at the mouth, his eyes were flipped,” according to the lawsuit.
“Eric was our purpose in life,” Eric’s mother, Donna, said through sobs during a virtual press conference Thursday. She went on to describe a teen who could be aggressive when frustrated but was ultimately progressing as he worked on his social skills.
One-third to one-half of all people killed by police have some sort of disability, according to estimates from a 2016 paper published by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability organization. And, according to a study from researchers at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University, approximately one in five adolescents with autism were stopped and questioned by police by the time they reached 21.
“We believe that police should not be responding to these situations, because generally speaking their presence tends to makes things worse,” Noor Pervez, a community engagement coordinator for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said in an email to VICE News, noting the organization didn’t have special knowledge of Eric’s case and was responding to media reports.
“We see many restraint-related deaths of autistic people, including at the hands of police, as well as in schools and other settings,” Pervez added. “Autistic people of color are targeted at higher rates.”
The parents’ lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount in damages, names the sheriff for Jefferson Parish, several deputies, the shopping center, and the yet-unidentified insurance providers for both the sheriff and the shopping center. It alleges violations of Eric’s constitutional rights and his civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.