Part II: "No family should go through this."

This blog is the second installment in a series about Austrian v. City of Burlington which details the story of J.A., a 14-year-old whose mistreatment at the hands of Burlington police and fire officials highlights the consequences of unchecked racial bias and ableism in the City’s first response system. Be sure to read Part I for an overview of the case. 

When Cathy Austrian called Burlington police after she discovered that her 14-year-old had taken merchandise from a nearby gas station, she expected that officers would engage her child in a conversation about what had happened and take appropriate steps to document the incident.  

Instead, the encounter ended with J.A.—a Black middle schooler with multiple disabilities—being verbally threatened and repeatedly physically restrained by Burlington police, then forcibly drugged by Burlington paramedics. 

J.A. feared officers would “do to me what you did to George Floyd” 

Throughout his interaction with Burlington police, J.A. clearly communicated his fear—and expectation—of police brutality based on the color of his skin. After finding himself suddenly handcuffed and at the mercy of two white officers, J.A. began to scream, “I’m Black” and expressed sincere concern that the officers would “do to me what you did to George Floyd.” 

The misperception of Black boys and men as inherently threatening or violent is an all-too-common error rooted in racial stereotypes and bias that can be pervasive in encounters between Black youth and the police. In this case, notes from one officer’s use-of-force report reveal—contrary to body camera footage—exaggerated descriptions of J.A.’s behavior that led the officer to perceive a significant threat to the officers’ safety, which he used to justify forceful restraint of the teen.  

Read Part I for more about what J.A. experienced that day

Likewise, Burlington paramedics failed to consider how J.A.’s documented disabilities may have manifested in his response to being held to the floor in a prolonged restraint, handcuffed, and having a spit hood placed over his head. Influenced by racial stereotypes, they instead pathologized J.A.’s legitimate, foreseeable distress and labeled him with “excited delirium”—a pseudo-diagnosis disproportionately applied to young Black men as a justification for police aggression. Then, paramedics used their biased assumptions to justify forcibly drugging J.A. with ketamine—a powerful sedative that left him unconscious. 

A history of racially biased policing 

Unfortunately, J.A. is not the first young Black person to experience violence and unnecessary escalation by Burlington police and fire officials. Back in 2017, the ACLU of Vermont sent a letter of concern to the Burlington Police Department regarding their pattern of arresting and threatening men and boys of color in retaliation for their protected speech.

Just last year, we filed an amicus brief on behalf of Charlie Meli in a case he and his brothers brought against the City. In 2018, Charlie witnessed the violent arrest of one of his brothers while the other lay unconscious on the ground after police had shoved him against a wall. Understandably upset, Charlie expressed distress over what he saw—prompting police to arrest him for “disorderly conduct,” even though his reaction to police behavior was protected by the First Amendment. City officials ultimately settled the Meli brothers’ lawsuit out of court for $750,000 last year. 

The night before the Meli brothers’ incident—and on the same city block—another young Black man, Mabior Jok, was tackled and knocked unconscious by a BPD officer. Jok’s lawsuit alleging police misconduct is ongoing. These incidents and the ones highlighted in our 2017 letter highlight a pattern of bias that erodes trust between law enforcement and communities of color.

In a 2022 letter, the Burlington Police Commission called for an investigation by the Center for Policing Equity into numerous racial disparities in the city’s policing statistics—a recommendation that Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad strongly opposed.  

Commissioners highlighted that in 2021, Black people accounted for just 6.2% of the City’s population, yet they comprised 21% of the Ddepartment’s arrests and 36% of the people officers used force on in 2021. And, after making an arrest, Burlington police were twice as likely to keep Black people in custody than white people. Officers were also half as likely to refer Black people to the city’s court diversion program. 

Despite the data, Murad publicly contested the notion that Burlington police harbor a bias against Black people and urged city leaders to decline the Commission’s recommendation. 

A history of failing to accommodate people with disabilities 

In addition to a record of racial bias, BPD has a history of failing to adequately accommodate people with disabilities. In March 2019, an officer punched Douglas Kilburn, a 54-year-old man with multiple disabilities, several times in a UVM Medical Center parking lot. Kilburn’s jaw and eye socket were fractured in multiple places; he died a few days later.  

Kilburn had become agitated while trying to visit his wife, a patient at the hospital, and had an argument in the parking lot with his brother-in-law—which prompted hospital security to get involved, followed by the police officer that punched him. His death was ruled a homicide, a designation Mayor Miro Weinberger and former Police Chief Brandon del Pozo quickly attempted to have changed by state officials in a move Governor Phil Scott’s spokesperson later described as “border[ing] on unethical.” 

Several other high-profile incidents between BPD and people with disabilities have unfolded over the last decade. For instance, officers pepper-sprayed a 6-year-old child in 2018; in 2013 and 2016, officers shot and killed Wayne Brunette and Phil Grenon. Each of these individuals had known mental illnesses, and first responders had been called to help them during an acute crisis. 

Grenon’s 2016 death was the subject of a report released by the Vermont Mental Health Crisis Response Commission, which outlined two dozen recommendations for how to handle mental health crises in the future—including a call for law enforcement to develop an arrest and detention protocol that accommodates an individual’s known mental illness and includes working with mental health clinicians during these encounters. 

Unfortunately, these stories of mistreatment by first responders in Burlington highlight that, rather than being an exception, J.A.’s treatment by the police is part of a broader pattern of police mistreatment of Black youth and people with disabilities. 

The intersectional problem with “excited delirium” 

As explained in our first blog post about J.A.’s case, “excited delirium” is an illegitimate pseudo-diagnosis rejected by the medical community yet often applied to victims of police violence—especially Black men and boys, including young J.A.   

The dangerous consequences of this “diagnosis” are well known. For example, it was wrongfully used to justify the brutal restraint—and ultimate suffocation and death—of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, just months before George Floyd’s murder in 2020.  

Prude, a Black man, was experiencing a psychotic episode when officers labeled his distress as excited delirium. They placed a spit hood over his head and pinned him to the ground; Prude suffocated within minutes. His death was later reclassified as a homicide by asphyxiation.  

A few months later, George Floyd of Minneapolis was also inappropriately diagnosed with excited delirium prior to his death at the hands of police, who aggressively pinned him to the ground in a face-down restraint despite repeated pleas from Floyd that he could not breathe. 

In another highly publicized policing incident, police and paramedics in Aurora, Colorado, repeatedly dismissed the panicked pleas of Elijah McClain, a young Black man who described himself to police as “different” while being handcuffed and restrained. After incorrectly labeling his distress as excited delirium, paramedics injected McClain with what turned out to be a lethal dose of ketamine.  

Now what? 

Through the ACLU’s recently filed lawsuit, Cathy Austrian hopes that she can help her child heal from his experience—and ensure that no other family goes through something like this. Doing so will require that the City of Burlington reckon with its practice of responding to the distress of Black people and people with disabilities with violence and handcuffs instead of compassion and support.  

Rather than viewing J.A. as a child in distress, a person with a disability in need of accommodation, or a member of the community who reacted with a trauma response to a crisis created by the police, J.A. was treated the way too many Black youth are during interactions with law enforcement—as a threat to be managed by any means necessary. 

Our lawsuit puts forth several specific policy changes that Cathy and her family hope to see the City of Burlington implement, including: ensuring that people with disabilities receive proper accommodations when interacting with the Burlington police and first responders; addressing the stereotyping and biases that underlay the race-based disparate treatment that J.A. endured; and prohibiting the use of ketamine to treat perceived altered mental states, including “excited delirium,” in the field. 

Local and state officials must take seriously their obligation to ensure that everyone who calls Vermont home is treated with dignity and respect when interacting with police and first responders. Only then can our communities experience true public safety.