A Worcester woman says she called 911 seeking medical help for her 10-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, and instead got two police officers who put the child in handcuffs, fractured a bone in his arm, and then lied about the incident in a report, according to a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month.
The child, referred to in the lawsuit by his initials, JT, is now 13. After his arm was broken, JT, who had been fascinated by law enforcement officers and talked about becoming one when he grew up, became scared of police officers, said the family’s lawyer, Hector Piñeiro.
“He kind of went into his own shell after this happened, withdrew in school, put his head down,” Piñeiro said.
The lawsuit comes at the end of a summer in which a national conversation about police accountability reached a fever pitch following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Advocates have argued for sending other trained professionals — not police officers — to respond to calls involving people having medical or mental health emergencies. Boston Police have had a small number of social workers available to accompany officers on such calls, and this month the city funded another 15 social workers with money from the police overtime budget.
Worcester City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said, “The incident resulted in an outcome that no one desired.
"I feel for what the boy and his family experienced, but because this is an ongoing legal matter, I am unable to comment further at this time,” Augustus said.
The morning of Sept. 25, 2017, had already been a difficult one for Lindsey Beshai Torres, according to the lawsuit. Her son JT had a reaction to his medication and stopped taking it, so he had been up for most of the night. He got in the car with his mother to drop a sibling off at school and, after a minor argument, got upset.
“Mrs. Beshai Torres did something she never done before with JT,” Piñeiro wrote in the complaint. “She called 911 to ask for medical assistance.”
Beshai Torres told the dispatcher her son is on the autism spectrum. The dispatcher asked a few questions and told her an ambulance was on its way.
Two police officers, John R. Alers and Paul P. McCarthy, arrived before the ambulance did, according to the complaint. One of the officers knew Beshai Torres, and she reminded them both that her son is on the autism spectrum, and asked them to calmly help him, the family alleges in the lawsuit.
The two officers walked up to the car and started talking to JT. He grunted, then threw a bag of potato chips out of the car, according to the complaint. The bag did not hit the officers.
“As JT sat in the front passenger seat of his mother’s car, the officers could see that he posed no reasonably perceptible risk of imminent harm to himself or to any other person,” Piñeiro wrote in the complaint. “Common sense dictated that there was no need for precipitate action, that the officers should give JT room to calm down while waiting for the ambulance, that in any event they should do nothing to alarm or upset JT and there was no need to touch or detain him.”
Alers grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled him out of the car, according to the complaint. Beshai Torres yelled at officers that her son was a 10-year-old with autism, and JT yelled to his mother that they were hurting him, according to the complaint. The lawsuit alleges that McCarthy had his knee on JT’s neck, and Alers had his knee pressing down against the boy’s legs as they both tried to get his arms behind his back. They kept him on the ground, handcuffed, until the ambulance arrived.
Alers later filed a report saying JT was yelling profanities at him and pounding the seat and armrest with his fist, and that JT was only handcuffed for a short while he calmed down, according to the complaint. Beshai Torres said this was not true.
Neither officer had received formal training or education about how to best interact with people on the autism spectrum, and how people with autism might react when confronted by law enforcement, according to the complaint.
“The police told Mrs. Beshai the incident should not have occurred,” Piñeiro said. “To pacify and make her go away they suggested they could possibly train their officers on how to deal with individuals with autistic spectrum disorder. They did nothing and no one was ever disciplined.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.