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Parents of autistic boy who was Tasered question police actions

The child's mother and father say Hawthorne officers removed the disabled boy from school days after the incident last year and questioned him without a lawyer present.

March 03, 2009|Richard Winton and Jack Leonard

The family of a 12-year-old autistic boy who was shot last year with a police stun gun at a Hawthorne middle school accused police officials on Monday of removing their son from school in handcuffs days after the incident and subjecting him to an interrogation in retaliation for a misconduct complaint the family had filed.

The family's attorneys contacted The Times after reading the Hawthorne Police Department's version of the Sept. 23 incident in the newspaper this week. The department had declined to name the boy.

Despite knowing the youngster was developmentally disabled, investigators had him agree to waive his Miranda rights to remain silent or have an attorney present at the interview, which occurred at department headquarters, the boy's parents said. They said police also threatened to take the boy to Juvenile Hall.

"I really believed that someone was going to call and explain why a 12-year-old was shot in the back with a Taser," said Larry Mathews, the boy's father, who filed a complaint the day after the incident. "And I still haven't heard."

The boy's mother, Almarietha Mathews, said the police overreacted and failed to take into account their son's disorder.

"They arrested him for acting out his mental disability," she said.

The Times is withholding the boy's name because he is a minor.

Hawthorne Police Lt. Michael Ishii said the boy assaulted a security guard and kicked a police officer in the groin before he was shot with the 50,000-volt Taser as he ran toward a campus exit. Police have launched an internal investigation into the use of force.

He said investigators followed procedures in reading the child his Miranda rights before interviewing him to determine whether he knew the difference between right and wrong -- a critical element in deciding whether criminal charges should be filed. Detectives spoke to him for no more than 20 minutes, Ishii said.

"After we spoke to the minor, our investigator had a lengthy discussion with the parents so that they would understand the policies and procedures we were going through," Ishii said.

The issue of using Tasers on children has become controversial in recent years. Several cases in Florida and other parts of the country have prompted calls for a ban on the shocking of minors.

Some police departments discourage the use of electroshock weapons on juveniles, and a National Institute of Justice report last year found that more research is needed to determine the health effects of shocking small children.

Ishii said Officer Vincent Arias made the decision to use the weapon after the boy's adult sister had been called to the school and had been unable to calm him down.

But the boy's family disputed the police account.

They said he began feeling agitated when he was asked to line up for his photograph during a "photo day" at the school and started running around the campus.

They said the school's security guard tried to rush the boy and detain him, making their son feel more agitated. The school called the family for help, the couple said, but when the boy's sister, Lauren Mathews, arrived she was held back and prevented from intervening.

Lauren Mathews, a senior at Stanford University, said she arrived before the police officer, and had calmed her brother down. She said Arias ran at full speed toward her brother, agitating him once again. She said she never saw her brother kick Arias and accused the officer of escalating the problem.

The boy was shot with the Taser in the back. Arias deployed the electric charge twice.

"To watch my brother shaking on the ground, it was very traumatic," the sister said. "He wasn't the same for days afterward."

The family said the boy urinated on himself and was taken to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance to have the stun gun's two electrode darts removed from his back.

The family filed a legal claim against the city late last week alleging a variety of civil rights violations, including discrimination because of the boy's disability and race. The child is African American. Arias is Latino.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said prosecutors allowed the boy to enroll in a counseling program.

If he successfully completes the program, she said, a criminal case will not be filed against him.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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