The Buckeye Police Department has launched a registry and identification program for individuals with autism and other conditions after a city officer mistook an autistic teen for a drug user earlier this year.
Buckeye officials said the voluntary program will help officers better manage calls and interactions. But experts and civil rights leaders worry about its implementation.
The teen’s family also believes the moves don’t solve what happened with their son.
“I think it’s disgusting that you have to label someone with a disability with a special mark so they don’t have to live in fear from being hurt by police,” said Danielle Leibel, who told ABC15 her son Connor was traumatized during the incident.
“If my son were on a registry, how would that have changed this situation at all?” she asked. “How would that have kept him safe?"
On July 19, a Buckeye Officer named David Grossman mistook Connor Leibel for a drug user. As he drove by a quiet neighborhood park, Grossman claimed he saw Connor putting his hand up to his face, giving him reasonable suspicion to handcuff and detain the boy.
But the officer lost control of the situation and the boy, causing both of them to fall into a tree. Leibel was left was scrapes across his face, arm and back.
It turned out Connor was using a small string to “stim” – a coping mechanism common for people with autism.
The video made international headlines.
In response, Buckeye Police said they believe Grossman did nothing wrong, had probably cause and used appropriate force.
However, the city also announced it would train all its officers in autism awareness and launch the registry. In addition, Buckeye will send registered individuals a color-coded wristband that corresponds to their diagnosed condition.
“It sounds like an idea with good intentions but I’m curious to see how successful it is,” said Dr. Aaron Blocher-Rubin, CEO of Arizona Autism United.
According to information provided by Buckeye, the registry’s purpose is “to compile and maintain a list of individuals who have ‘Special Needs’ due to mental or neurological disabilities and who may reside or frequently visit the City of Buckeye.”
Blocher-Rubin said the video of what happened to Leibel was hard to watch.
He said the registry may make sense for some families, but he also raised concerns over the wristbands.
“It publicly labels someone which certainly has some drawbacks,” he said.
Most importantly, Blocher-Rubin hopes the registry and wristbands don’t replace training and awareness.
“You would hate to see that it becomes an expectation,” he said. “Hopefully, this is just some extra thing to provide some help and not over time becomes an expectation to where police say, ‘You didn’t sign up, so how did you expect us to know.’”
Buckeye Police said the registry will help give officers detailed information about subjects like their triggers and how to approach them when a call comes out or if they’re reported missing.
But those scenarios don’t fit what happened to Leibel.
He was playing in a neighborhood park. Police weren’t called, and he wasn’t missing.
That’s why the ACLU of Arizona has concerns, as well.
“People with disabilities shouldn’t be required to broadcast their diagnosis to the world just because police officers have insufficient training,” said ACLU Arizona policy director Will Gaona. “I think a better solution would be to have special wristbands for officers who engage in excessive use of force so the public knows who they are dealing with.”
In the application, Buckeye said it would share the health information with other police department, leading Gaona to worry about people providing sensitive health information.
“How will this information be protected?” he said. “How will it be shared?”
Buckeye officials have declined multiple interview requests to discuss the Leibel incident and related issues.
A spokesperson said officials couldn’t comment because of the potential for litigation. So far, the family has not filed a lawsuit.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.