In the ongoing debate about police brutality and abuses of power, police encounters with people who suffer from mental illness have come under serious scrutiny, with many advocates suggesting that police are not the people who should be dealing with these types of problems. Police encounters with people who have autism are also often unnecessarily violent because officers expect a level of compliance that may not be possible.
In body camera footage recently released from a police encounter at an elementary school in North Carolina, a police offer can be seen treating a 7-year-old child with autism as if he was a violent criminal. In the footage, the young boy is placed face down on the ground while being handcuffed behind his back. The officer then berated and threatened the young boy for nearly 40 minutes.
The incident took place in September 2018 at the Pressly School in Statesville, North Carolina, but the video is just now being released because the boy's mother has filed a lawsuit against the state, the school district, and the officer involved for negligence, emotional distress, and violating the Constitution.
The incident reportedly began when School Resource Officer Michael Fattaleh was called to a classroom where the young boy was getting in trouble for spitting. Body camera footage shows Fattaleh arriving in the room where two staff members are restraining the young boy by his arms. Fattaleh immediately grabbed the child and placed him into handcuffs.
“He’s mine now,” the officer said before launching threats at the young boy.
“Don’t move. You spit on me, I’ll put a hood on you,” he threatened.
Spit hoods are essentially sacks that are placed over a person's head, but in some cases, people have been suffocated by this tactic while in police custody.
At one point in the video the officer told the young boy that he was “fixing” to be charged with a crime.
“I’m not playing that game. I don’t do the spitting. I don’t mind the walking. I don’t mind the occasional shove. But you don’t spit here. He’s going to get charged. If you, my friend, are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be very shortly. You ever been charged with a crime before? Well, you’re fixing to be,” Fattaleh said.
Staff members stood by and watched, either unable or unwilling to do anything to help. The boy was forced to lay in that uncomfortable position in handcuffs until his mother showed up. When his mother arrived, she was horrified by the scene.
“How can you charge a special needs kid with a count of assault?” she asked the officer.
She then explained that her son has autism and sometimes gets separation anxiety. After that incident, the mother, who has remained anonymous, has taken her son out of the school and ultimately decided to homeschool him.
Fattahel is no longer working as a resource officer at the school, but the terms under which he left are unclear. He is still employed as a police officer and faced no charges for the attack. Fattahel's attorney Ashley Cannon told the Charlotte Observer that the state’s Bureau of Investigation conducted an independent review of the incident, and concluded that Fattahel did nothing wrong.
The family's lawsuit is still ongoing.