Police Officer Using Excessive Physical Force
Each week, it seems like there is a new story about police officers somewhere in the United States using excessive physical, oftentimes deadly, force in a situation that just doesn’t warrant it. I was thrusted into this national debate last week and not just as a TV expert and commentator, but as a civil rights attorney asked by a family to represent them.
16-Year-Old With Autism Pepper Sprayed By Police
When Tawnya Nevarez, a single mother of three, reached out to me, I wasn’t prepared and hardly believed the horror she experienced during a routine traffic stop in Burbank, California. Tawnya’s 16-year-old autistic son was pepper sprayed and tased by a police officer because she forgot to make him fasten his seat belt. As the officer approached Tawnya’s car and began speaking to her son, she immediately advised him of her son’s disability. Even with this knowledge, the officer still chose to subdue her son by use of taser, while she could do nothing but watch as her son took to the ground in the throes of a full-fledged seizure. Twanya said watching her son go through that was the worst moment of her life, and I can absolutely understand why.
When I think of this situation, I can’t help but think of my own son. Such a sweet innocent boy, he too is affected by Autism, which is why I fight day-in and day-out for Autism rights and awareness. If I were in Tawnya’s place, or if any of you were, and had to watch your 16-year-old son be tased by an officer of the law, your life would never be the same.
And think of the boy. Many kids affected by Autism already struggle with social interactions and trust – can you imagine how that boy must feel now? His dignity, and the dignity of those who love him most, was completely stripped away by the heinous actions of the officer, and although it seems like it’s something we often forget: everyone’s dignity matters – even when it comes to interactions with the police.
Must We Live In Fear?
The bottom line here is that citizens who live in the United States shouldn’t live in fear of the men and women who protect and serve them, which is why I’m proud to now represent the Nevarez family as their attorney of record. An innocent kid like Tawnya’s 16-year-old who was tased by the Burbank Police Officer should be able to go through life without worrying about being assaulted by a law enforcement officer. Why have we accepted physical or lethal force as the default response for police officers? What in the world happened to our humanity?
We can talk about sensitivity training and slaps on the wrists for these officers all day long, but what we really need is a commitment to community policing and a common-sense approach to the kind of tactical measures our police forces employ. Citizens of communities and the officers who protect them shouldn’t be fearful of each other, they should be coming together as a community to make sure situations like this aren’t part of our daily news cycle. It’s only when we all get involved that things will actually change.
Education is the Key
One issue that I believe contributed to this horrible situation is the complete lack of public awareness as to what exactly Autism is. I’ll bet if we did an informal test right now with all of you, you’d be able to tell me a whole lot more about AIDS, Cancer, Muscular Dystrophy, Diabetes, Down Syndrome, and Cerebral Palsy than you could about Autism. Why is this significant? Because Autism affects more kids every year than all of those other diseases or disorders combined – a startling statistic. With 1 in 64 children born affected by Autism, we have a responsibility to educate the public and our public servants so that this kind of tragedy never happens again.
We Must Do More
For the Nevarez family and for the families of others who’ve been victims of overzealous policing, we must do more to change the way we think about what makes us all different. We must learn to approach these differences with sensitivity and empathy, rather than fear and ignorance. When we allow the prejudices of public servants to cause innocent African-American kids to die, or innocent 16-year-olds to be tased on the street, something needs to change.
It’s time we step up as a society and view the things we don’t understand about each other as as an opportunity to learn, rather than something of which we need to be afraid. It’s only through a commitment to education, tolerance, patience, and collaboration as a community that we will see real progress.