9-year-old girl with autism put in police custody during behavioral episode

Reporter: Lauren Sweeney
Published: Updated:

The family of a 9-year-old girl with autism is considering legal action against the City of North Port after a January incident where police grabbed the girl and put her into the back of a police car.

The girl’s mother, McKenna Smith, called 911 after her daughter ran away, something she has done. When the police arrived, the officer-worn body camera video shows that Smith had already located the girl.

“I had no idea where she was, and at that point, they’d already dispatched you guys I have done this for 10 hours before, where I start to wait … I’ll just wait it out it’s not a big deal,” Smith said to the officers at the beginning of the encounter.

The girl is seen hiding in the bushes telling officers she doesn’t want to come out. Officer Ryan Crosby is heard on the videos explaining to Smith that he doesn’t want to put the girl in custody if he doesn’t have to.

“I don’t really want to do that and I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. Officer Jonathan Valente also arrived on the scene.

Ten minutes into the incident, the girl runs about 50 yards away from where they were initially standing and can be heard screaming profanities at her mother and the officers.

While Smith was trying to get her daughter to calm down, the officers were discussing the option of transporting her to a hospital.

Worried about what could happen next, “They are going to have to Baker Act you,” Smith warned her daughter.

About twenty minutes after Crosby arrived on the scene, he’s seen leaning down and 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,” Smith screamed.

According to Terry Cramer, an attorney with Wilbur Smith Law in Fort Myers, the girl was abused by a babysitter, and being pulled on her wrists triggers her.

The girl’s mother is now considering filing suit against the City of North Port for how the police handled the incident.

The officers explained to Smith during the initial encounter that they felt they had to take the girl into custody after they saw her shoving Smith.

“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,” wrote Joshua Taylor, the public information officer for the City of North Port.

According to the department’s training on dealing with persons with autism, officers are supposed to talk calmly and softly and seek information from a parent on how to de-escalate the situation. The training documents also explain that if the person is unarmed and contained, they should “use all available time to allow the person to deescalate themselves without your intervention”.

According to the body camera videos, it’s only ten minutes between when the girl runs from her mother and she is placed in police custody.

“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.

Laden, who has a daughter with autism, said he is still reviewing the videos to see if the officers violated any policy. So far, no one has been reprimanded.

“I see it two ways: I see it as a father myself of a special needs kid, obviously, this wasn’t the worst-case scenario but it’s not the best-case scenario, and you see it as a police officer doing what needs to be done to make sure she stays safe,” said Laden.

But attorneys for the girl’s mother see it differently.

“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,” said Danny Garza, another attorney with Wilbur Smith law.

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