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Feds say Jefferson Parish deputies may have violated law in death of autistic teen

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Feds say Jefferson Parish deputies may have violated law in death of autistic teen

May 28, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Richard A. Webster, Verite
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Feds say Jefferson Parish deputies may have violated law in death of autistic teen
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Andrew Brookes/Getty Images

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office may have violated the civil rights of a 16-year-old autistic boy under the Americans with Disabilities Act when deputies pinned him to the pavement, handcuffed and shackled, as officers sat on his back for more than 9 minutes, according to a “statement of interest” filed this month by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of a civil rights lawsuit against JPSO.

The teen, Eric Parsa, died on the scene in January 2020.

The sheriff’s office argues that deputies did not discriminate against Parsa based on his disability — and thus did not violate the ADA — because Parsa posed a threat to himself, the public and law enforcement officers.

But the DOJ said that evidence submitted in the case appears to show that Parsa posed no danger, that deputies were aware of the teenager’s disability, and yet did nothing to modify their procedures or actions to ensure his safety, as required by law.

“A reasonable jury could thus find that Defendants discriminated against (Parsa) based on disability,” DOJ attorneys said in their May 12 statement, noting the only word Parsa uttered throughout the deadly ordeal was “firetruck.”

The coroner ruled the teen’s death an accident as a result of “excited delirium,” with “prone positioning” as a contributing factor. But Parsa’s family disputes the finding that his death was accidental, saying it should be classified as a homicide. In January 2021, they sued Sheriff Joe Lopinto and seven deputies, claiming the Sheriff’s Office violated Parsa’s constitutional and civil rights, as well as his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Justice Department files statements of interest in civil lawsuits to “explain to the court the interests of the United States in litigation between private parties,” according to a 2017 article in the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review. Since January 2020, the DOJ has filed at least 18 other statements of interest in disability rights cases. In this case, the department’s interest is its responsibility to enforce Title II of the ADA, which prohibits law enforcement agencies from denying individuals with disabilities the “opportunity to participate in or benefit from their services.”

The department’s May 12 statement followed a motion from the Sheriff’s Office for federal Judge Wendy Vitter to issue a partial summary judgment — tossing out the ADA claims without taking them to trial.

The Sheriff’s Office and its attorneys did not respond to a request for comment. It previously slammed the family’s lawsuit in a press release as “rife with false claims and malicious accusations.”

The Department of Justice declined to comment.

This isn’t the first time JPSO has been accused of ignoring the needs of people with disabilities or experiencing a medical crisis. The Sheriff’s Office recently settled a 2021 lawsuit in which Sojourner Gibbs claimed deputies violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act when they slammed her to the ground and handcuffed her while she was having a diabetic episode.

Gibbs said they disregarded her cries for medical assistance and accused her of being a drug addict. Terms of the settlement have not been disclosed.

Gibbs’ and Parsa’s stories were featured in a year-long investigation by ProPublica and WWNO/WRKF into alleged abuses by JPSO.

The news organizations found that JPSO did not conduct an internal affairs investigation into Parsa’s death and none of the involved deputies were disciplined, according to court documents. In fact, JPSO rarely sustains complaints against its deputies. Over a three-year period, from 2017 to mid-2020, the Sheriff’s Office sustained only one misconduct complaint against a deputy. During that same time, the New Orleans Police Department sustained 247.

‘The video speaks for itself’

A portion of surveillance footage taken at the scene of Eric Parsa’s death. Verite edited the clip for length and centered it on the crowd surrounding Parsa. Watch the full, unedited surveillance video here. (Credit: Footage provided to Verite. Edited by Roxie Wilson/Verite)

On Jan. 19, 2020, Parsa’s parents took him to play laser tag at the Westgate Shopping Center in Metairie. As they were leaving, he experienced a disability-related “melt-down,” according to the family’s lawsuit. Surveillance footage shows the boy repeatedly slapping his own head in the parking lot, then slapping and wrestling his father for several minutes.

A nearby business manager contacted JPSO Deputy Chad Pitfield and informed him that a child with special needs was having a violent episode, Pitfield testified in a September 2022 deposition. When Pitfield arrived in his patrol car with the lights flashing, Parsa became even more agitated. He once again began slapping his own head, then slapped Pitfield, who took him to the ground.

At least six more deputies arrived in four patrol cars and two unmarked vehicles. They handcuffed and shackled the teen as three deputies took turns sitting on his back, with one putting him in a chokehold. About 10 minutes later, deputies noticed Parsa had gone “limp” and urinated, according to the lawsuit. His mother screamed that they were choking him. Only then did they roll him into a “recovery position.” But it was too late. He died on the scene.

Title II under the Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement agencies make “reasonable modifications” to their policies, practices, and procedures to ensure people with disabilities are not discriminated against or denied services.

In Parsa’s case, the DOJ said deputies could have dispatched crisis intervention officers, used de-escalation strategies, or given the teenager time and space to calm down as he didn’t pose a significant safety threat. Instead of sitting on him as he lay face down on the pavement, deputies could have rolled Parsa onto his side, stood him up or sat him in a vehicle.

The Sheriff’s Office argued in court documents that such policy modifications are only required once two factors are in place: the scene is secured and there is no longer a threat to public safety or life. JPSO maintains neither was true in Parsa’s case, and therefore the deputies’ actions did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The video speaks for itself and clearly shows that the scene was never secure prior to (Parsa’s) demise,” the sheriff’s office’s attorneys wrote in a May 1 motion for partial summary judgment, referring to surveillance footage taken from the scene.

That same video appears to contradict the sheriff’s claim. At about 1:29 p.m, Pitfield pins Parsa to the ground by sitting on his back. From that point forward, Parsa never sits or stands up, or moves from that spot. At one point, he is surrounded by seven deputies and seven JPSO vehicles.

An ambulance arrives at 1:39 p.m. and a few minutes later paramedics take Parsa’s lifeless body away on a stretcher.

“Critically, nothing … suggests that (Parsa) had a weapon, that officers ever reasonably suspected he had a weapon, or that there was a threat to human life,” the DOJ said in its statement. “The record contains no evidence that any bystanders were at risk.”

There is evidence, however, that deputies “could have provided any number of reasonable accommodations once the scene was secure, and thereby afforded the child a safe and effective law enforcement response,” DOJ attorneys concluded.

Statements provided by deputies who were present — and acknowledged they knew or assumed Parsa was autistic or had special needs — also seem to contradict the sheriff’s claims that the scene was not secure. They said that while he was on the ground, he was “calm” or “under control” and was not resisting.

“Everything was fine,” two deputies said.

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This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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