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Burlington sued over claims of excessive force and inappropriate ketamine use on 14-year-old

A building that says Burlington Police Department above the door.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
The Burlington Police Department. A new lawsuit alleges the city police officers and paramedics used unnecessary force during an incident involving a Black teen with developmental disabilities.

The mother of a Black teen with behavioral and intellectual disabilities is accusing Burlington police officers and paramedics of using excessive force when they pinned her son on the ground, handcuffed him, and gave the 14-year-old a powerful sedative, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Vermont Superior Court.

The complaint, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, alleges that the use of force violated the Vermont Constitution, that the officers and paramedics failed to accommodate the teen’s disability, and that racial stereotypes led the first responders to overact.

“Burlington city officials created a crisis," said Hillary Rich, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Vermont. “They responded to an unarmed, peacefully seated Black child with disproportionate and unnecessary force.”

More from Vermont Public: Burlington to pay $750K to settle police brutality allegations from 2018

According to the lawsuit, Burlington resident Cathy Austrian called the police on May 15, 2021 after her son stole vape pens from a local gas station. Austrian told BPD officers Kelsey Johnson and Sergio Caldieri that her son, who has a diagnosed intellectual disability, had been acting strangely and “somewhat disconnected from reality” after recently being put on new ADHD medication, the lawsuit says.

Austrian’s son, referred to in the lawsuit as J.A., gave police all but one of the vape pens. The officers spent 10 minutes talking to J.A, trying to recover the final vape pen, but were unsuccessful. Officer Caldieri told J.A. to “hand it to me, or you’re getting up and going in handcuffs,” the lawsuit says.

Caldieri and Johnson grabbed J.A. from his bed, wretched his arms behind his back, took the vape pen and let go of J.A. for a moment, the lawsuit alleges. J.A. “flailed his arms haphazardly at the officer,” the lawsuit says, and the officers then pinned the teen to his bed, handcuffed him and brought him to the floor, where the lawsuit says J.A. “proceeded to panic — screaming and contouring himself in distress.”

According to the complaint, the officers eventually called Burlington Fire Department paramedics, who placed a mesh bag — known as a spit hood — over his head and said J.A. was experiencing “excited delirium,” a controversial diagnosis that isn’t recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association and has been used to justify the deaths of Black men in police custody.

The lawsuit says Burlington paramedics, after consulting with an off-site doctor, then injected J.A. with ketamine — a powerful sedative that’s come under scrutiny in recent years following the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was given a fatal dose of the drug during a police encounter. A jury in Colorado found two paramedics guilty of criminally negligent homicide for giving McClain the ketamine.

J.A. was treated for abrasions from the handcuffs and restraints and hospitalized overnight for heart rate monitoring, according to the lawsuit.

Austrian filed a complaint to the police department after the incident, but Chief Jon Murad determined the officers’ actions didn’t violate any department rules and that their use of force was appropriate, the lawsuit says.

“The police chose to respond to my son with unprovoked violence and use of force, when they could and should have followed their own procedures and used safe, supportive methods instead,” Austrian said in a written statement. “Every parent, regardless of their child’s abilities or race, should be able to call for help without fearing a disastrous outcome.”

More from Vermont Public: How qualified immunity acts as a barrier to accountability for alleged police brutality

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an order requiring the city to better accommodate people with disabilities, provide more racial bias training to police and paramedics, and bar the use of ketamine to treat “perceived altered mental states.” The suit also requests monetary damages for J.A.

Every parent, regardless of their child’s abilities or race, should be able to call for help without fearing a disastrous outcome.
Cathy Austrian

In a written statement, Samantha Sheehan, communications director for the city of Burlington, said the city's review of the incident found no violations of state law or city policy.

"While the City has yet to be served with a summons and complaint, we expect to vigorously and successfully defend against the allegations set forth by Ms. Austrian," Sheehan said in an email.

The police department also reviewed its directives around dealing with juveniles and interacting with people with "diminished capacities" following the incident, Sheehan said. The Police Commission, the city's civilian oversight board, is expected to review and rewrite the police department's diminished capacities directive, according to Sheehan.

This isn’t the first time Burlington police have been accused of using excessive force against Black people and individuals with disabilities. The city paid $750,000 last year to settle allegations that an officer used excessive force when he shoved a Black man into a wall. The city also paid $270,000 in 2019 to the family of Wayne Brunette, a man in the midst of a mental health crisis who was shot and killed by police in 2013.

A state commission also determined that the missteps by the police department led to the 2016 fatal shooting of Ralph “Phil” Grenon, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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