A Cop Fractured an Autistic Teen's Wrists and Pepper-Sprayed His Dog

The officer approached the 14-year-old after several complaints that his dog wasn't on a leash.
October 21, 2020, 9:22pm
GettyImages-159637079

Want the best of VICE New straight to your inbox? Sign up here.

A Topeka, Kansas, police officer forced a 14-year-old boy with autism to the ground, fracturing his wrist, and pepper-spraying his dog during an arrest.

The officer, later identified as David Ziegler, responded to a call on September 19 about a teenage male riding his bike through the neighborhood without a leash for his dog, according to the Topeka Police Department. After the boy allegedly ignored the officer several times, Ziegler tried to handcuff him, but the boy resisted. According to the teen’s account, the officer then took him to the ground and placed his knee on the boy’s head and then on his back.

The boy was later taken to the local hospital and was given a cast for a fractured wrist.

Three days later, the city’s Independent Police Auditor, Ed Collazo, opened an investigation into the incident. On Tuesday, he published a 16-page report outlining his findings and determined that while the officer had followed police department procedure when using force to place the boy under arrest, his actions were concerning.

Police said they had received two complaints in the space of three days about the boy failing to put a leash on his dog. When Ziegler arrived on the scene on September 19 after the second complaint, he approached the boy two separate times. The officer informed the boy that he was in violation of city law the first time and told him to take the “goddamn dog home” the second time, according to body-camera footage detailed in the audit report but not viewed by VICE News. Both times, the boy allegedly acknowledged him and rode off.

Minutes later, Ziegler spotted the boy and the off-leash dog a third time. That time, the boy inserted a pair of earbuds and began to run away, according to body-cam footage detailed in the report. Once the officer caught up and ordered the boy to stop, the boy complied but refused to share his name four times. Ziegler then asked the boy five times to turn around to place handcuffs on him, but the boy does not cooperate.

Resisting the officer’s advances, the boy repeatedly pulled his arms away. Ziegler then pulled out his pepper spray, after which the boy complied but complained about discomfort. When the boy’s dog began to bark at Ziegler, he pepper-sprayed the canine, which seemed to have no effect.

The officer told the city auditor that he only took the teen down after spotting two adults, one of whom was the boy’s mom, approach him during the arrest.

“In that moment it was essential that I take custody of juvenile as quickly as possible due to my inability to call for assistance earlier, the presence of his dog that had acted aggressively towards me, and that now two unknown people who appeared to know (the child) were approaching us on foot,” he said, according to the auditor’s report. “Forcing the juvenile to the ground at that moment was the fastest way to place him in handcuffs so I could address the other potential threats on scene and call for assistance.”

While Collazo said that the officer’s actions were justified, he recommended that the Topeka Police Department force Ziegler to get a refresher on de-escalation training.

“Officers should determine how to treat a citizen based on the totality of the circumstances and not simply follow the same pattern for every case,” Collazo concludes in the report. “The IPA sees the encounter with the juvenile and the judgment used by the officer as concerning. During the second contact for handcuffing, the Juvenile still had his hands behind his back and only took a few steps forward. He had four seconds where he could have run away from the officer, before being re-engaged by the officer and taken to the ground.”

But critics—including the boy’s mother, Marlena Mitchiner, who filed a complaint with the Independent Police Auditor’s Office shortly after the encounter, say the audit is too easy on the officer.

“I cannot say it enough times: The way that we approach, act, and react to a person is so incredibly important and can 100% direct how an interaction goes,” Michener said Tuesday. “When one is an officer of the law, this applies to them even more; one must be held to the highest of standards, and further situations like this can be prevented.”

The Topeka Police Department declined to comment on the arrest and audit when contacted by VICE News.

Last month, a 13-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome in Salt Lake City was shot 11 times by police officers. The boy’s mother said she called 911 in hopes that the officers would help de-escalate a tense situation with her son, who at the time was having a mental breakdown.

Incidents like the September shooting in Salt Lake City are why some activists have called for a restructuring of who responds to nonviolent public complaints involving people who suffer from mental illness. States like Colorado and cities like Austin, Texas, and Miami have already begun to implement social workers and other non-traditional means of law enforcement in policing, with promising results.