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Family of autistic man sues ex-cop over his death

It started as a routine police encounter after officers spotted a shadowy figure lying under a balcony behind a Hollywood apartment building.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It started as a routine police encounter after officers spotted a shadowy figure lying under a balcony behind a Hollywood apartment building.

The man, Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, was cordial at first. He handed over his ID and chatted with officers about his shoes, other cops he knew and how he stayed dry when it rained.

Moments later, he was dead.

Officer Joseph Cruz said he shot Chaudhry after he lunged at him with a knife. What Cruz and his partner apparently did not know was that the Pakistani-American man was autistic.

Three years later, as a jury weighs a lawsuit against police by Chaudhry's family, the killing highlights a challenge law enforcement increasingly faces: How to approach people with developmental disorders.

Autism is the world's fastest growing developmental disability, currently affecting about one in 110 children. Nationally, police today are better trained to recognize autism than in the past. Officers frequently make contact with autistic people, often when they are victims of crimes or return them home after they have wandered off.

Still, encounters sometimes turn deadly, leading to an outcry from advocates who say the law enforcement community needs more training.

Most Los Angeles police officers receive a one-hour lesson where they meet an autistic person and are taught about some of the condition's traits. Other agencies across the country are introducing similar classes.

"They need at least an eight-hour course," said Jamie Juarez, the director of Hope Counseling and Family Therapy, an outpatient mental health facility and a nonpublic school for children with autism. "They need a diagnostic course so they can distinguish between is this person on drugs or psychiatric impaired."

After Cruz was largely cleared of wrongdoing in the March 2008 shooting, Chaudhry's family sued him for wrongful death and other violations in the case, which a jury was hearing this week.

The dead man's relatives contend that Cruz, who was fired from the force on an unrelated matter, planted the knife.

"He didn't do it," Chaudhry's mother, Rukhsana Chaudhry, told The Associated Press. "He is simple. If someone talks loudly, he becomes scared and just freezes. He is the kind of person who would always follow whatever police said."

Chaudhry's shooting was echoed last year when another autistic man was killed. This time, Steven Eugene Washington was shot by two Los Angeles officers in Koreatown after they drove past him and heard a loud noise.

They said the 27-year-old was glancing around suspiciously and appeared to be pulling something from his waistband. They opened fire when he failed to respond to their commands, shooting Washington in the head. No weapon was ever found, an an internal probe is ongoing.

In September 2008, a Hawthorne, Calif. police officer Tasered a 12-year-old autistic boy after he grabbed a counselor then punched a security guard. Officials ultimately approved a $300,000 settlement after his father claimed excessive force.

In 2007, Miami teen Kevin Colindres died after officers restrained him following an outburst. His parents claimed he died because officers pinned him to the ground and held his ankles in the air, choking him. A lawsuit is ongoing.

The same year, the mother of an autistic man sued the Riverside County Sheriff's Department after her 21-year-old son died following a struggle with deputies.

Law enforcement autism trainer Dennis Debbaudt, who has a son with the condition, said that in general, fatalities could be avoided if police get more training and if relatives notify officials their loved ones have autism.

In Chaudhry's shooting, an internal police investigation found Cruz did nothing wrong in opening fire but he and his partner were faulted over their confrontation tactics.

Chaudhry grew up in a Los Angeles suburb and as a young boy developed obsessive passions for things including brooms, cars and lizards. Later, he became preoccupied with how people survive in tough places, and started experimenting at 18 with sleeping outdoors. Weeks before the shooting, he'd been arrested after police found him with a baton that he'd said was for his own protection.

Cruz told a jury Wednesday that Chaudhry pulled a folding knife out of his pocket then attacked.

"It was a really fast movement," Cruz testified. "He was attacking my face and neck area, he was coming at me."

Cruz's partner, David Romo, said in an earlier deposition that he never saw Chaudhry with a knife.

"I saw him close ... but I didn't see him lunge," Romo said.

Cruz was fired from the Police Department for allowing a prisoner to escape and lying about what happened, court documents state.

Olu Orange, the Chaudhrys' attorney, said the LAPD canceled a fingerprint analysis of the knife and a subsequent analysis found none of Chaudhry's DNA on the weapon.

LAPD spokesman Detective Gus Villanueva said he could not comment on ongoing litigation and Cruz's attorney, Pete Ferguson, declined to comment.

After the Washington shooting, civil rights groups demanded LAPD review its training procedures and policies for how officers handle autistic suspects.

The department responded that it was at the forefront of efforts to deal with autism, with most of the department's 10,000 officers trained to spot the condition's characteristics.

Detective Gilbert Escontrias of the LAPD's mental health evaluation unit said he partnered with the Autism Society of America to start the LAPD's autism training in 2006 after responding to a call in which a young officer was telling an autistic teenager to stop rocking back and forth, a common response to stress.

"I told the officer to let him alone and let him do what he was doing," Escontrias said. "It occurred to me that he didn't know enough."

An autistic person may not look an officer in the eye and will sometimes repeat commands without following them.

"Officers can think they are being mocked," Escontrias said.

Other autistic people get upset when they are touched or put in handcuffs.

Autism Society spokeswoman Marguerite Colston noted that the law enforcement community also saves the lives of many people with autism, who are prone to wander away for no apparent reason and often can't find their way home.

Across the state, lawmakers have recognized the problem. A 2008 law mandated the creation of a DVD and online video law enforcement personnel are supposed to watch.