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Police interaction with 9 year old autistic girl could result in lawsuit

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A Florida mother, McKenna Smith, called police for assistance after her 9 year old autistic daughter ran away – something that happened often.  This time things unraveled differently – the 9 year old was physically restrained and put into police custody – which now has the family considering legal action against the City of North Port.

Police body camera footage shows that Smith had already located her daughter when officers arrived.  She was hiding in nearby bushes, refusing to come out.

Officer Ryan Crosby, the first to attend the scene, is heard on the video saying that he doesn’t want to put the girl in custody if he doesn’t have to.  Officer Jonathan Valente arrived on the scene soon after.

The girl, still agitated, ran about 50 yards away, screaming profanities at her mother and the officers.

Smith warned her daughter, “They are going to have to Baker Act you.”  The Baker Act is a Florida law that allows families to provide emergency mental health services and temporary detention for people who are impaired because of mental illness and unable to determine their needs for treatment.

Twenty minutes after Officer Crosby first arrived on the scene, he’s seen grabbing the girl by her wrist to pull her into a police car.

“You can’t touch her that way, sir.  She’s been abused,” her mother screamed.

Terry Cramer, an attorney with Wilbur Smith Law in Fort Myers, said the girl was abused by a babysitter and being pulled by her wrists is a trigger for her.

Smith is considering suing the City of North Port for the officers’ handling of the situation.

Officers had explained to Smith that they felt they had to take the girl into custody after they saw her shoving her mother.

Joshua Taylor, public information officer for the City of North Port, wrote, “I understand this is a child, but once things start getting physical with another person, from the officer’s perspective, it’s time to step in.”

According to the department’s training on dealings with persons with autism, officers are taught to speak calmly and softly, seeking information from a parent on how best to de-escalate the situation.

“When you look at the totality of the circumstances you have a child that’s prone to running away or eloping, you’ve got a very busy roadway right down the road.  I think it’s probably the best option to secure her to make sure she doesn’t end up more hurt from a traffic accident,” said Commander Michael Laden, who oversees internal affairs and training for North Port police.

The mother’s attorneys see it differently.  Danny Garza, attorney with Wilbur Smith Law, said, “She expects them to come and de-escalate the situation.  She expects them, when they get there, to talk to her and help her figure out a way to get her daughter back under control, not we got this, drag her into a car, let’s see if we need to baker act her, let’s call EMS to inject her with something.  Not that, for sure not that. ”

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