Activist: Repeat caller weaponized Topeka police against autistic child

Marlena Mitchiner, right, said her son, left, feared for his life during his encounter with a Topeka police officer last month. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — An activist supporting a child with autism who was handcuffed and thrown to the ground by a Topeka police officer says the department is allowing residents to weaponize officers against minorities.

The 14-year-old boy’s family and supporters are calling for increased accountability for those who file false reports or claims and that the superiors of officer David Ziegler act on recommendations from a Topeka police auditor’s report.

Kansas Reflector is not 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.”

The auditor determined Ziegler abided by department policy but used “concerning” judgment last month when he confronted the 14-year-old and his emotional support dog, Bella, a 6-year-old thigh-high American terrier.

In the report, the auditor recommended command staff take a “closer review” of the case and Ziegler receive a “refresher in de-escalation training.” The boy’s family is waiting to see if the Topeka Police Department follows through on those recommendations before pursuing further action.

Ziegler confronted the 14-year-old after an individual called police to report the child was walking with his dog. Juanice Crowley, of the National Action Network, a civil rights activist group founded by Rev. Al Sharpton, said this wasn’t the first time the individual has called police to make a frivolous report. She said weaponizing of police against minorities cannot stand.

“There needs to be accountability stressed on the people that make these false calls,” Crowley said. “These biased calls, using the police as a weapon — that’s not helping the narrative. Unfortunately, that officer allowed himself to be used as a tool for that woman.”

Topeka police referred questions about the caller to Shawnee County dispatch. An administrator for dispatch didn’t immediately return phone messages left Friday afternoon.

Crowley, Marlena Mitchiner, the boy’s mother, and attorney LaRonna Lassiter Saunders in a news conference Friday addressed their concerns over these calls and said the auditor’s report was a small step toward justice in the case.

Edward Collazo, the city’s independent auditor, determined Ziegler was justified in using force because the boy resisted arrest and the officer perceived dogs and bystanders to be potential threats.

When the boy did not provide his name as requested, Ziegler told him to turn around and be handcuffed or get pepper sprayed. The child turned around, but when his dog approached and barked, Ziegler sprayed the animal.

Mitchiner said the bystanders were the boy’s brother and his brother’s girlfriend, who had approached the situation to see if the boy was all right and to let the officer know the child has autistism. That information was left out of the auditor’s report.

“I understand that they’re saying the dog, my son, and his girlfriend were approaching, but I still don’t understand why the use of force was necessary as he was standing there with his hands behind his back,” Mitchiner said. “It would have been just as quick to put the handcuffs around his wrist than it was to go through everything that he did to slam him onto the ground.”

TPD was not able to immediately provide the extent to which officers undergo de-escalation training or if they require any training for encounters with people with autism.

“I would add that in addition to the dedicated training hours that are specific to de-escalation, de-escalation is a primary focus within many of the training hours TPD officers receive,” said Gretchen Spiker, spokeswoman for TPD.

Mitchiner said her son feared he would be shot and killed when Ziegler reached for his belt. Instead, the officer reached for pepper spray, which he used on the dog.

If department policy allows for this sort of behavior from officers, then the policy must be changed, Lassiter Saunders said.

“We are challenging the citizens of Topeka, city officials, police department because everyone should want a certain standard from law enforcement,” Lassiter Saunders said. “If an officer cannot handle situations with all types of people, regardless of color, regardless of disability, regardless of age, then they should not be law enforcement.”

Lassiter Saunders said family and supporters are cautiously optimistic TPD will do the right thing and meet their demands. That includes payment of ongoing medical bills and further investigation beyond this case into Ziegler, with subsequent action if needed.

If proper action is not taken, Lassiter Saunders is collaborating with attorney Andrew M. Stroth, of Action Injury Network, a high-profile firm specializing in officer-involved incidents. Stroth has worked on previous excessive use of force cases in Topeka, including the Dominique White case. In that case, two TPD officers in 2017 killed White by shooting him in the back as he ran away from them.

“We support the police, and we’ve had plenty of positive interactions with the police,” Lassiter Saunders said. “Anybody that is saying that for a person to advocate for their right or stand up for their right is against the police, that is not the case. We just know that bad apples are bad police, are bad for everybody and they’re making the good police officers look really bad.”