Published in partnership with MintPress News.
ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Marcus Abrams, a 17-year-old autistic teen from St. Paul, who also suffers from seizures, didn’t belong on the tracks at a Metro Transit station, but his family is questioning the violence of his subsequent arrest during which police tackled him to the platform floor.
A photo collage posted to Facebook by Abrams’ sister two days after the incident shows multiple bruises to his face.
Advocates for the autistic and disabled say the incident highlights the need for better police training.
“We see autistic people who are treated as if they’re intoxicated or they’re assumed to be noncompliant because it’s taking them a little bit longer than usual to respond to requests from police,” said Samantha Crane, legal director and director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, in an interview with MintPress News.
According to a statement from Howie Padilla, spokesman for the St. Paul Metro Transit Police, the incident began at around 7 p.m. on Aug. 31, when police spotted Marcus Abrams and two friends on the tracks and asked them to return to the platform. “In the process of making an arrest, the officers did end up taking the individual to the ground,” he told the Star Tribune, adding that Metro police are “reviewing” the incident.
According to witnesses and a statement given by Abrams, transit police assaulted the teen:
“One grabbed my arm and the other one grabbed my wrist and I told them to get off me — I did nothing wrong,” Abrams said. ‘They just slammed me right on the ground. I tried to get them off me and (one officer had his) whole body on my whole face and I couldn’t breathe.”
The pressure and confusion of the situation likely contributed to the seizure Abrams experienced.
Speaking to MintPress on Wednesday, Maria Caldwell, Abrams’ mother, said that her son is still suffering from severe, lingering pains in his body after the beating. Although police took Abrams to Regions Hospital and informed Caldwell, she said that it was three hours before she was allowed to see her son. It was only when her other children “started making a big ruckus” and she insisted that she would not leave without seeing Marcus that officials finally relented.
Caldwell said that when she finally saw her son, police and hospital workers seemed more concerned with determining if he was drunk or under the influence of drugs than treating his injuries. The tests showed that Abrams was sober and he was released from the hospital and police custody. He is not currently facing any charges.
The family has retained legal counsel but are waiting for the release of a surveillance tape before considering their next steps. So far, police won’t tell Caldwell when the tape will be released.
‘Autism is not a crime’
Caldwell wants to know why police didn’t realize there was something different about her son before treating him like a violent criminal.
“Autism is not a crime,” she told MintPress, adding that she believes police should have been able to tell from his behavior that her son was mentally different rather than on drugs or under the influence.
She wants Metro Transit Police to develop a procedure for identifying and peacefully handling the autistic. “There were too many distinct identifying marks to show that something was wrong with him. He has the mind of a 12-year-old,” she added.
Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, agreed that special training can help prevent these kinds of incidents. He told MintPress that his organization has trained “more than two dozen law enforcement and emergency responder organizations across Minnesota” as well as in Wisconsin and even California, although the St. Paul Metro Transit Police are not among them.
Weinberg said his organization teaches police to “ask a few questions that maybe they might typically ask someone under those circumstances.” They’re also taught to notice typical autistic behaviors, such as repetitive motions called “stimming.” Weinberg said autistic people can sometimes be hyper-alert to some noises and environmental stimuli, or oblivious to others, and an officer might interpret either reaction as the result of intoxication.
He added that autistic people can become overwhelmed in unfamiliar situations or when they’re surrounded by unfamiliar people, even when they’re able to function with relative ease in familiar, everyday life. They may attempt to flee or even try to force their way away from whatever has left them overwhelmed. “Their intent isn’t to be rude or to injure,” he said, but rather a natural, instinctive “flight-or-fight response.”
Although hesitant to comment on the St. Paul arrest without more available evidence, Weinberg suggested that police could have questioned Abrams’ two friends for information on his condition, even if Abrams himself wasn’t immediately able to respond.
Samantha Crane agreed that more training is necessary, but stressed that incidents like these don’t only happen to the autistic. “This happens across different disability categories,” she told MintPress. For example, she said, “We also see people with diabetes, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, being assumed to be intoxicated.” Deaf people have also suffered from police misunderstandings and abuse, she added.
These incidents can even become deadly, she noted, referencing a 2013 incident in which Maryland police violently forced Robert Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, face first to the ground after he refused to leave a movie theater, ultimately causing him to asphyxiate. A grand jury did not indict the officers in the killing.
“You can’t always assume that a person with a disability will be able to tell you that they have a disability,” Crane noted. “Even if you think person could be intoxicated, that’s certainly not a reason to tackle them and treat them roughly, and police need to know there are lots of things other than intoxication, lots of disabilities, that can have this kind of profile.”