Police used a stun gun on an autistic teen. Here’s how it could have been prevented

If Graham police had proper training on how to approach people with autism and if all information given to dispatch had been relayed to officers, it’s likely that 19-year-old Michael Moore would have never been cuffed, wrestled to the ground and stunned twice by officers on June 26, according to experts.

That day, a neighbor in the 900 block of Texas Street called 911 to report that someone was throwing rocks into her yard and at her dogs. It wasn’t the first time he had done it, she said. She told dispatchers that Moore seemed to be “not all there.” She also asked dispatch to tell the officers to talk to her before they approached Moore. She said she had asked Moore not to throw rocks before, and just wanted officers to talk to him, reports say.

However, records show that dispatch didn’t tell police that the caller described Moore as “not all there” — which she meant as “mentally,” she wrote in an account to police.

When the first officer, identified as Olton Freeman, told dispatchers that he was in the area, they told him, “the (reporting party) would like to speak with you.”

Freeman responded, “10-4” but a minute and a half later he said he was at Texas Street with Moore, records show.

Moore had difficulty staying focused and talking with the officer. Eventually a field sobriety test was started, Moore was cuffed, two officers and Moore fell to the ground and he was stunned twice. It was then that officers realized that Moore might not have been under the influence, so they talked to his mom and learned he has autism.

Then, they finally talked to the woman who made the report.

“I told the lady (dispatcher) when I talked to her, I told her I wanted to talk to y’all before you went to talk to him and she said, ‘OK, I’ll let them know,’” she told the officers, according to a body camera video requested by the Star-Telegram. “I told her he’s not all there. We just want him to stop throwing rocks at the yard and our dogs.”

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Two experts who work to help police better understand people with autism — one who has trained police for 25 years, and one who is a criminal attorney and autism expert — viewed the videos and talked to the Star-Telegram about their observations.

‘They could’ve talked to him more’

Dennis Debbaudt will use what’s now called “the Graham incident” when he trains police officers in the McAllen area next week.

“We have training videos we show that are scripted and filmed in a documentary style, and when I saw the Graham footage, I said, ‘We’re predicting reality here,’” he said.

Debbaudt’s son has autism and he has traveled the country for 25 years to talk to police, including the New York police and Chicago police departments. Debbaudt was also interviewed by John Oliver for the HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” where he says his work began over a misunderstanding with police at a shopping center when his son was young.

After watching the Graham video, Debbaudt said, “The greatest error here is that none of this probably would have happened had there been a broader, general order from the 911 caller.”

He added that the comment made of Moore not being “all there” should have been an indication that Moore might have had a mental health disability.

“It’s a crummy way to describe it, but still the first failure was that not being relayed,” he said. “That could have given (police) an opportunity to use a different approach.”

Carol Weinman, a criminal attorney and autism expert, said after watching the video footage she could understand why the officers thought Moore was under the influence, based on what they didn’t know.

“I don’t think it was overly obvious that Michael had autism,” she said. “He was acting a little off, from what I can tell. I can understand why officers would think he was under the influence. I don’t think this was as apparent as some other cases. Having said that, to jump forward, that’s why training is so imperative.”

After the incident, Graham police said on Facebook that the department “will use this opportunity to expand our awareness and ability to serve diverse residents within our community.”

Calls and an email to the Graham Police Department on Monday for additional comment weren’t immediately returned.

Weinman said that had officers taken a better approach to Moore, they would have known not to handcuff a man with autism unless he was posing a threat to the officers.

For instance, officers would’ve known that handcuffing a person with autism could feel like rubbing sandpaper on the arm of someone who isn’t autistic, she said.

“They have a hypersensitivity to being touched,” she said. “If you had someone rubbing sandpaper on your arm, you could imagine how you’d react. So that was one mistake. In this incident, I don’t think it was called for. He wasn’t listening (to the officer) but he wasn’t threatening him … They could’ve talked to him more. They didn’t try to interact with (Moore) at all. This happens a lot with this population. There’s been a lot of cases where officers assume someone is under the influence.”

Both experts said police should be calm around people with autism and keep a distance unless they fear for their safety. Weinman said more training on handling calls involving people with autism has been given to officers across the country, but it’s generally not in-depth enough. Each person can display different signs of the disability, or none at all, which makes it increasingly difficult for officers to recognize it.

“This started as throwing rocks in someone’s yard,” Weinman said. “He’s a 19-year-old and they’re trying to say he’s a grown man, but he’s really like a 10-year-old because emotionally he’s so much younger. So you’re taking an incident of throwing rocks into a yard and now you have this guy on the ground and now you’re tasing him.”

Graham police said both officers who responded to Texas Street have been cleared of any wrongdoing. The Texas Rangers declined to investigate the incident.

Nichole Manna, 817-390-7684, @NicholeManna
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