Topeka police audit finds concerning behavior by officer who used force on autistic child

By: - October 20, 2020 8:23 pm

Marlena Place-Mitchiner said officer D. Ziegler ticketed her 14-year-old boy, pictured here, after handcuffing and throwing the child to the ground for walking with his dog in the street and refusing to give his name. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Topeka police auditor determined an officer abided by department policy but used “concerning” judgment last month when he cursed at an autistic child, pepper sprayed the child’s dog, and handcuffed and threw the child to the ground, breaking the child’s wrist.

Body camera video shows the officer yelling at the 14-year-old boy to take his “god damn dog home” and muttering about the “f***ing kid.” The officer confronted the child for the crime of “walking on the street” and was justified in using force, the auditor concluded, because the boy resisted arrest and the officer perceived dogs and bystanders to be potential threats.

The auditor recommended command staff take “a closer review” of the case and the officer get a “refresher in de-escalation training.”

D. Ziegler ticketed the 14-year-old boy for “pedestrian in roadway” and “interference with law enforcement” after the Sept. 19 encounter. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Topeka officials don’t identify officers in cases where force is used, but Marlena Place-Mitchiner, the boy’s mother, said the officer signed the ticket he issued to her son as D. Ziegler. Salary records indicate a David Ziegler has been with Topeka police since he was an officer in training in 2016.

Kansas Reflector isn’t naming the child because he is a juvenile and has not been convicted of a crime. The boy was ticketed for two misdemeanors — “pedestrian in roadway” and “interference with law enforcement.”

“I cannot say it enough times: The way that we approach, act and react to a person is so incredibly important and can 100% direct how an interaction goes,” Place-Mitchiner said. “When one is an officer of the law, this applies to them even more. One must be held to the highest of standards, and further situations like this can be prevented.”

Edward Collazo, the city’s independent police auditor, issued a 16-page report Tuesday on the Sept. 19 confrontation between Ziegler and the child. The report provides a play-by-play of the brief encounter from the view of the officer, the boy, and body camera video. It makes no mention of the child’s autism.

The officer responded to a call about a boy on his bike with an unleashed dog and located the child around 4:20 p.m. The officer tells the boy the dog needs to be on a leash. The child whistles for the dog and leaves, but two minutes later, the officer finds the child still in the street with the dog.

“The officer rolls down the window and has a brief conversation with juvenile,” Collazo reported, “telling juvenile to take the ‘god damn dog home.’ ”

Ziegler follows the child, who began walking in a grassy area with the dog next to him. The child inserts ear buds and tries to evade the officer.

“As the juvenile begins to run,” Collazo wrote, Ziegler “can be heard saying, ‘I’m running.’ As the officer turns to get back in his vehicle, he can be heard muttering, ‘f***ing kid.’ ”

Ziegler drives around the corner, turns on his lights and siren and orders the child to stop. The child complies but refuses to give the officer his name.

Ziegler gives the child an ultimatum: Turn around and be handcuffed, or get pepper sprayed in the face. The child turns around, but his dog approaches and barks. The officer pepper sprays the animal, which doesn’t seem to have an effect.

Ziegler then places an arm across the child’s chest and a hand on the child’s shoulder to take the child to the ground. The officer places his knee on the child’s back and handcuffs the child.

“In that moment,” Ziegler told the auditor, “it was essential that I take custody of juvenile as quickly as possible due to my inability to call for assistance earlier, the presence of his dog that had acted aggressively towards me, and that now two unknown people who appeared to know (the child) were approaching us on foot. Forcing juvenile to the ground at that moment was the fastest way to place him in handcuffs so I could address the other potential threats on scene and call for assistance.”

In an interview with the police auditor, the child said he was riding his bike that afternoon when his dog chased him down. The child said he was trying to get the dog to go back home before the encounter with the police officer.

The child complained of pain after being taken to the ground, but there was no call for medical help. His wrist was fractured, requiring a cast.

Collazo determined Ziegler lawfully detained the child for walking in the street and, because the child refused to give his name, interference with a law enforcement officer. Both violations are listed on the ticket given to Place-Mitchiner when she arrived on scene.

In his summary, Collazo said it is up to an individual officer to use good judgment when applying police powers. Ziegler’s judgment, Collazo said, was “concerning.”

“Officers should determine how to treat a citizen based on the totality of the circumstances and not simply follow the same pattern for every case,” Collazo said. “IPA would question the necessity for the handcuffing, and consequently, the force utilized therein.”

Critics of Topeka police have questioned Collazo’s independence because he is a former police officer and prosecutor who was hired by the city manager. The city manager also hires the police chief.

In a joint statement, attorney LaRonna Lassiter Saunders and community advocate Ariane Davis said the recommendations made by Collazo were a good “first step in seeking justice.”

“We must build trust between our officers and the community,” they said. “We expect our police officers to respect and have the ability to interact with all people. We will continue to hold anyone who falls short of the standard accountable. We challenge the citizens of Topeka, city officials and the police department to do the same.”

John Nave, a former Topeka city councilman, said the situation is a “classic example” of why people distrust law enforcement. Nave serves on Gov. Laura Kelly’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice, which is preparing to deliver recommendations for statewide police reform.

Instead of “getting macho” with a kid, Nave said, the officer could have handled the situation differently. He could have told the child he isn’t the enemy and that they will solve the problem together.

“These officers don’t think outside the box,” Nave said. “It’s like, ‘I’m authority, so I’m going to put my thumb on you.’ He just didn’t think. He didn’t apply the stuff that he was trained on except for the part of, ‘I’m the boss, and you’re going to do what I say.’ “

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.