LIVONIA, MI - A young woman with special needs was accused of shoplifting at a Michigan Walmart, and despite pleas from her family that she can’t understand what’s going on, the police throw Jodi Kozma to the ground and handcuff her.
Jodi loves music and singing, and her parents say she’s extremely friendly and trusting. But Jodi is not your typical 25-year-old. She had a birth defect that left her with mental impairment and a low IQ. That’s why Jodi’s parents, Wendy and John Kozma, always make sure a family member is with her; if she were ever separated from them, they taught her to find a police officer for help. But what happened to Jodi has left her terrified of police.
“I was disgusted. I knew that would affect her for the rest of her life,” Wendy Kozma told 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo.
Jodi’s nightmare all started with a shopping trip with her grandmother and her cousin inside a Detroit area Walmart… and ended with Jodi being thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and in tears.
Walmart store security cameras were watching Jodi’s every move on a Friday in August 2012.
Jodi’s grandma allows Jodi to shop for herself a bit, always keeping in contact by cell phone from a few aisles away.
After Jodi chooses a set of hair ties that cost $3.68, Jodi and her grandma check out and head toward the parking lot.
But, before they can exit the store, two large men approach Jodi and accuse her of shoplifting. It turns out they are Walmart Asset Protection staff in plain clothes, but Jodi’s mom says Jodi thought they were trying to abduct her.
“At the time she called me, the only thing she told me was that a man was trying to take her out of the store,” said Wendy Kozma.
Even though Jodi’s 72-year-old grandma repeatedly tries to explain to Walmart that Jodi has special needs, Jodi’s mom says no one would listen.
“They had no interest in looking in her bag, looking at the receipt, nothing,” said Wendy.
Jodi’s grandma even lifts up Jodi’s shirt slightly so the Asset Protection men can see that the only thing in Jodi’s waistband is her phone.
A Walmart staffer called police, and the Kozma family thought everything would be sorted out.
“My mom said ‘Jodi, the police are on their way, it’s going to be ok honey.’ And the total opposite happened,” said Wendy.
Four police officers enter the store. One of them pushes Jodi’s cousin away from her. The other three surround Jodi and tell her to put her hands behind her back.
“They went to cuff her without telling her, without explaining, without talking her through anything, and then when she was taught, as we told her, don’t touch me, don’t touch me. Her hands went up and they threw her to the ground and got on top of her,” said Wendy.
Jodi later told her mom that she couldn’t breathe.
“She could not comprehend what was going on. And later she ended up telling me that she thought she was going to die,” said Wendy.
Minutes later, Wendy arrives but she says a sergeant won’t let her near her daughter, who is now detained in small room.
“I told them that her IQ was very low and I was her guardian and that was the equivalent of holding an 8-year-old without representation and I needed to be by her side,” said Wendy.
Wendy Kozma says the sergeant claimed they were never told that Jodi is mentally impaired.
The 911 call to Livonia police tells a different story:
Livonia Police: “Are they detained right now?
Walmart: “No, we can’t detain her and she’s claiming that she’s special needs.”
Later in the call:
Walmart: “She’s not complying at all. And, you did catch that she’s special needs right?”
Eventually, Wendy is allowed in to be with Jodi. She shows the officers Jodi has nothing hidden on her body and she says the officers start to realize Jodi hasn’t stolen hair ties or anything else.
Attorney Deborah Gordon says after the Kozma’s could not get an apology from police and Walmart – they decided to file this lawsuit. In it they allege Livonia police violated Jodi’s constitutional rights and that they failed to accommodate her disability.
“All they had to do was take 10 minutes and say alright, we’re going to sit here, we know her mother’s on her way, and her guardian. They took somebody akin to an 8-year-old and treated her this way, and she had done absolutely nothing wrong,” said Gordon.
John and Wendy say Jodi still has nightmares and breaks down crying because she doesn’t understand why this happened. And as part of their lawsuit, they’re demanding that the Livonia Police Department be trained in how to manage people with mental impairments.
“These are our weakest citizens! And for something like this to happen to our weakest citizens is outrageous,” said John Kozma.
A Walmart spokeswoman gave 7 Action News this written statement: “We have not received the complaint, but we are looking into this and we will closely review the allegations when they are presented.”
Livonia officials declined to speak to the 7 Investigators on camera due to the pending litigation, but City Attorney Don Knapp did release this statement:
“The Officers were informed by Walmart Loss Prevention that Ms. Kozma had concealed merchandise in her waistband or purse. Officers observed a cell phone in Ms. Kozma’s hand as well as a bulge in her waistband. This information gave the Officers probable cause to arrest and search Ms. Kozma. Because the Officers did not know if the bulge in her waistband was stolen merchandise, a weapon, or a cell phone, they asked Ms. Kozma to put her hands behind her back to handcuff her. This was done for the Officer’s safety.
Rather than cooperate, Ms. Kozma pulled away and began screaming. Ms. Kozma responded violently to efforts to detain her. The Officers used basic techniques to place her in handcuffs without injury. Ms. Kozma was then taken to the Walmart security office and briefly detained for investigation. It was determined that Ms. Kozma had not stolen any merchandise, was not arrested, and was released.
A review of all surveillance video from Walmart makes it clear that Officers acted calmly and appropriately.”
Kozma’s family disputes that she was not injured. They have photographs of some bruising and cuts to her chin and neck.