Cops Throw Autistic Man to the Ground and Assault Him


Julie St. Louis | Courthouse News Service

KODIAK, Alaska (CN) – The parents of a 29-year-old autistic man have sued the Kodiak Police Department and two of three officers who forced their son to the ground, pepper-sprayed and handcuffed him during an incident this past September.

Nicholas Pletnikoff lives just a few houses away from a bed-and-breakfast that a father and son from Oregon were checking into on Sept. 16, 2015, when Pletnikoff reached into the open passenger-side door of their rental car.

The son called 911 and told the operator that Pletnikoff “was not being combative, and he even chuckled to the operator that he was simply ‘standing’ there,” the complaint, filed on Pletnikoff’s behalf by his parents, says.

Pletnikoff suffers from autism spectrum disorder, motor dyspraxia and subsequent developmental delays, according to the complaint. When he encountered the tourists, Pletnikoff was retrieving the family’s mail – one of the many activities that are part of his health services-recommended therapy to help him interact and better understand his community.

But instead of acting reasonably with Pletnikoff – who was known to at least one of the responding officers who had gone to high school with him as having “special needs” – one of the responding officers “unnecessarily began an unprovoked and unlawful physical confrontation with Nicholas,” the complaint says.

That officer, defendant Francis de la Fuente, “immediately, forcefully and unnecessarily spun Nicholas’ body around so that the front of Nicholas’ body was jammed up against the front of a nearby parked truck,” the complaint says.

In his report, de la Fuente said he handcuffed Pletnikoff merely to detain him for investigation. But Pletnikoff’s parents say that he had no legal cause under Alaska law to arrest him at all.

Meanwhile, a second officer not named in the complaint assisted de la Fuente in spinning Pletnikoff onto the truck. The officer that knew Pletnikoff from high school – defendant Philip Christmas – threatened to pepper-spray Pletnikoff and said nothing about the man’s autism to his fellow officers.

During this show of force, “Nicholas’ two hands are simply holding his family’s mail,” the complaint says.

And when Pletnikoff asked “Can I go, please,” de la Fuente threw him to the ground.

“While de la Fuente inflicted the force on Nicholas, Nicholas was pleading: ‘I want to go home, please, I want to go home. Please.’ The police camera footage shows Nicholas pleading with the officers as de la Fuente forcefully presses his head into the ground, and while the two other officers also move to physically dominate Nicholas,” the complaint says.

“As Nicholas was saying ‘Please,’ his head forcefully pressed into the ground, de la Fuente deliberately removed his canister of pepper spray with a free hand and pointed the weapon inches from Nicholas’ face.

“De la Fuente deliberately, unnecessarily and unreasonably sprayed the chemical weapon into Nicholas’ face, causing Nicholas intense physical pain, terror and emotional distress. The police camera footage depicts de la Fuente’s deployment of the pepper spray directly into Nicholas’ face,” the complaint says.

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Pletnikoff suffered bruises on his neck, shoulders and ear during the melee, as well as cuff marks on his wrists and facial swelling from the pepper spray.

Alaska law allows for the use of nonlethal force to make an arrest – but Pletnikoff had committed no crime and was never placed under arrest, the complaint says.

The complaint, filed in Kodiak Superior Court on Feb. 9, includes a claims of negligence against Christman and de la Fuente, assault and battery against de la Fuente, and unreasonable seizure, failure to train and vicarious liability causes of action.

Pletnikoff’s mother Judy told the Alaska Dispatch News that her son still struggles with what happened to him “on one of the few tasks he was comfortable doing alone,” and hopes they can get him back to his “reasonable self and not have to live with this cloud over him.”

A police consultant hired by the Kodiak Police Department to complete an independent investigation of the incident released a report earlier this month stating that officers “acted professionally and within the scope of their authority and that they used the minimal amount of force to ensure their safety and that of the community.”

Myron Angstman, one of the Pletnikoffs’ attorneys, said the timing of their lawsuit has nothing to do with report.

“I put little stock in it, because those [reports] are typically produced in claims like this,” Angstman said in a telephone interview.

“The guy has a significant connection with Kodiak police,” Angstman said, referring to consultant Greg Russell. Russell conducted insurance-sponsored training for island officers in defensive driving in the mid-2000s and active-shooter training in 2014.

Russell also used the services of a Kodiak officer to conduct background checks on off-island police candidates, according to an official Kodiak Police Department statement. The city acknowledged its past dealings with Russell, but “the city and Mr. Russell determined that an ethical screen could be erected without compromising the investigation,” the statement said.

“Again, we put little stock in it,” Angstman said. “I am relatively certain they knew in advance [Russell] was going to absolve police. We intend to prove that they acted improperly.”

As for body-camera footage of the incident, Kodiak and its police department initially refused to release the video to the Pletnikoff’s mother or local media outlets after a public-records request. Officials claimed “privacy issues and an ongoing third-party investigation” precluded them from making the video public.

In late 2015, Kodiak Superior Court Judge Steve Cole ordered the release of the video in a separate case filed by the Kodiak Public Broadcasting station against the city of Kodiak.

The video shows that after de la Fuente pepper-sprays Pletnikoff, the man’s mother – alerted to the incident with her son by neighbors – tells de la Fuente, “How dare you do this to him” and “He works with your daughter.”

De la Fuente responds with “I don’t know that,” but later tells Pletnikoff’s mother that he did not realize Pletnikoff is autistic and said that if he’d known he would have stopped the takedown.

Kodiak Police Chief Ronda Wallace referred questions to attorney Bill Ingaldson, who did not respond to an email request for comment.

The Pletnikoffs seek $100,000 in real damages plus punitive damages.

They are also represented by Joshua Fitzgerald in Kodiak. Angstman, of Bethel, has represented and won a number of high-profile personal injury cases in Alaska with settlements in the millions of dollars.

Kodiak, with nearly 14,000 residents, is a lush emerald isle known for its abundant fishing fleets and grizzly bears.

Published by Courthouse News Service.

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