January 31, 2024

Contact: Stephanie Gomory, Communications Director
[email protected], 802-223-6304 x111

BURLINGTON, Vt. – The parent of a Burlington teenager (referenced in court filings as “J.A.”) filed a lawsuit against the City of Burlington yesterday alleging discriminatory and unconstitutional treatment by city officials. The case stems from an encounter in which Burlington police and paramedics needlessly escalated an interaction with J.A., used excessive force and injected him with ketamine, and forcibly removed him from his bedroom and home. J.A., a Black teenager with a documented history of complex trauma and behavioral and intellectual disabilities, was fourteen years old at the time of the incident.

ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Hillary Rich: “As we have seen too many times before, Burlington police escalated a routine encounter with violence and then refused to take responsibility for the harm they caused, instead blaming the victim. When community members are urging that more be done to address racial and disability discrimination in policing and reduce the footprint of law enforcement in overpoliced communities, this is exactly what they want to prevent.”  

On May 15, 2021, Cathy Austrian discovered that her child—who had recently changed his ADHD medications and was exhibiting unusual behavior—had taken several vaping pens from a local gas station. She asked two Burlington Police Department (BPD) officers to come into her home for a conversation with J.A. and immediately informed them of his disabilities and change in medications, and that he had recently undergone an MRI of his heart. Ms. Austrian believed and expected this would be a learning opportunity for J.A. about the impact of his low-level theft.

When the officers entered J.A.’s room, he was sitting calmly on the bed and eventually relinquished all but one of the vape pens at Ms. Austrian’s request. J.A. did not engage the officers and presented no danger; the officers could have simply issued a citation or walked away. Instead—despite their knowledge of J.A.’s disabilities and recent medical history—the officers threatened J.A. with arrest and handcuffing if he did not produce the final item.

Although the officers could have engaged in a number of different de-escalation techniques—including continued verbal engagement, calling a supervisor for guidance, or requesting a clinician for support—the officers abandoned BPD policies and instead grabbed J.A., forced his arms behind his back, and wrested the pen from his hands. When J.A. started to panic, the officers did not disengage. Instead, they handcuffed J.A. and ultimately pinned him to the floor, where the terrified teen screamed and contorted himself in distress.

Police summoned paramedics, who did not adequately discuss with Ms. Austrian or BPD J.A.’s disabilities or health needs. Instead, the paramedics proceeded to wrap J.A.’s head with an opaque mesh bag, or a “spit hood,” further terrifying him. Officials then labeled J.A.’s distress as “excited delirium,” an illegitimate diagnosis rejected by the medical community yet often applied to victims of police violence, especially Black men and boys.

Paramedics then injected J.A. with ketamine—a powerful, fast-acting anesthetic used to induce loss of consciousness and approved for restraint use on adults only—contrary to established protocols. Ms. Austrian watched, horrified, as officials carried her unconscious child from his room in a stretcher bag and took him to the hospital. J.A. was discharged the next day—bruised, disoriented, and traumatized.

Hoping for some accountability from BPD, Ms. Austrian filed a complaint about the unwarranted and excessive force used against J.A. After reviewing her complaint, as well as body camera footage and the confidential results of BPD’s internal investigation, the Burlington Police Commission made several recommendations to then-Acting Police Chief John Murad. Murad did not accept the Commission’s recommendations in full and concluded that the BPD officers’ actions in this case constituted an appropriate use of force. Murad told Ms. Austrian that his officers did not violate any Department policies.

Rather than accept responsibility for the incident, Burlington sought to refer J.A. to the Burlington Community Justice Center for assault. But the Center rejected the charge, determining J.A. was not at fault, and it was never pursued.

Plaintiff Cathy Austrian: “The police chose to respond to my son with unprovoked violence and use of force, when they could and should have followed their own procedures and used safe, supportive methods instead. Every parent, regardless of their child’s abilities or race, should be able to call for help without fearing a disastrous outcome. We want Burlington to be held accountable for the harm their officials caused my son. We don’t want other families to have to endure this pain and lasting trauma.”

The Burlington Police Department has a long history of discriminatory policing, while its leadership has opposed independent oversight. In 2017, the ACLU sent a letter of concern to BPD, citing multiple examples over a two-year period in which people of color – both adults and children – who swore at or challenged the police were chased down, pepper sprayed, and arrested by police. Although none of these individuals were violent or made a clear threat, each was charged with disorderly conduct. The ACLU filed an amicus brief with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022 on behalf of Charlie Meli, asserting his arrest was another example of a “troubling practice of police responding to Black men’s speech with handcuffs.”

People of color are not alone in experiencing disproportionate mistreatment at the hands of BPD: its officers have demonstrated a pattern of responding to individuals with disabilities with unnecessary—and sometimes deadly—force. In 2016, after BPD officers killed a man with disabilities who was holding a knife, the Vermont Mental Health Crisis Response Commission concluded the death was preventable and urged further training in mental health best practices. Similarly, a 2021 assessment of BPD reported that “BPD has significant deficiencies in training,” particularly regarding interacting with people with disabilities and de-escalation. 

The lawsuit alleges violations of Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution and the Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act (VFHPAA); it seeks declaratory, monetary, and injunctive relief.

The Plaintiff is represented by the ACLU Foundation of Vermont and Latham & Watkins LLP, with strategic support from the MacArthur Justice Center.

The case complaint is available here.