December 1, 2005

Autistic Man's Death Unnecessary

Advocate criticizes use of stun gun
Autistic man's death unnecessary, he says

By Brendan McCarthy, Tribune staff reporter.
Freelance reporter Carolyn Rusin contributed to this report
Published November 30, 2005

A disability rights advocate said Tuesday that better training may have prevented an incident last week in which an autistic man died after Des Plaines police officers used a stun gun in their attempts to subdue him.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Hansel Cunningham, 30, remain under investigation by Illinois State Police, and officials said the probe could take a year to complete.

Cunningham, a resident of a group home in Des Plaines, died Nov. 20 after he was shocked twice with a Taser by police officers who had responded to a 911 call from a caregiver at the home. Officers also used pepper spray and tackled him before paramedics injected a sedative.

Don Moss, a disability rights advocate who works with Evanston-based Rimland Services for Autistic Citizens, which operates the group home, questioned the use of force and the judgment of Des Plaines police officers and paramedics.

Cunningham "never had a history of violence but was sensitive to people touching him," said Moss, who also is executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Illinois. "The force likely caused more agitation to Hansel. It's common for people with autism to be sensitive to sounds, to bright lights, to touch.

"This type of force was not needed, the action was not necessary. The restraint was not protocol. Apparently the police were aware it was a home for autistic adults. But perhaps the police weren't framed or trained in less violent techniques."

Des Plaines Police Chief Jim Prandini said officers used appropriate force to subdue Cunningham, who had bitten his caregiver and, according to Prandini, was combative and could have harmed himself or others.

"Our position is that we followed everything according to our guidelines. I believe the Fire Department did, too, but that is part of the investigation," Prandini said. "Hopefully, we will find some results that will show why this unfortunate situation happened. We sincerely want the family to know that the Police Department, the entire city, offers its condolences and that we feel terrible about this."

The Cook County medical examiner's office has postponed ruling on the cause and manner of Cunningham's death, pending further police investigation.

"I really would like to know," Prandini said "If they point to the direction of a Taser, let's make a Taser change. If they point to the direction of training, let's make a training change."

Cunningham was a five-year resident of the Rimland home. After he was subdued, he had breathing problems. Paramedics were unable to revive him, and he was pronounced dead at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

Paramedics initially were called to the home to treat the caregiver.

"He bit the hands and arms of the staff member," said Moss, who was briefed by the not-for-profit agency and is familiar with the case. "I understand there was a lot of blood. He had bitten him two or three times."

Moss said Cunningham did not have a history of violence and was familiar with the caregiver, who had been working at the home for more than three years.

The state police's public integrity unit, a task force of investigators from the state police and the Cook County state's attorney's office, is investigating and has begun interviewing police officers, emergency personnel, witnesses and family members.

Lt. Lincoln Hampton, public information officer for the state police, said there is no timetable for the investigation and that it could take a year to complete.

"They're going to do a thorough investigation to get to the bottom, to discover exactly what happened in this case," Hampton said.

A final report will be turned over to the state's attorney's office, which would determine if charges are to be filed.

Des Plaines police and the Illinois Department of Public Health, with the assistance of the Northwest Community Emergency Medical Services system, which oversees paramedic procedures in the northwest suburbs, are conducting internal investigations.

Dr. John Ortinau, medical director of the Arlington Heights-based Northwest Community EMS system, said the paramedics involved would be interviewed within the next week.

"Everything looks like it was done to protocol," he said, referring to the EMS rescue and ambulance report.

Attempts to reach Cunningham's family for comment were not successful. A Rimland spokeswoman said a funeral for Cunningham was held Tuesday.



Danny's Mom said...

I myself have an autistic son, and worry what could happen to him at the hands of strangers, or others such as police, etc. who may make a mistake due to a misunderstanding. I would wonder too though, why with no prior history of violence this young man bit his caregiver. I think the investigators should look into possible abuse by the caregiver to see if that could be a reason for the acting out on the young man's part.

Anne said...

From Dennis Debaudt:
Avoiding Unfortunate Situations

Apologies to Ginger if posted already.

Anonymous said...

I was furious when this happened in November, because I am also a mother of an autistic boy. I've had to call 911 when Tyler ran (he was 3) out of my house. I told the dispatcher he was autistic and she said "what should I tell the dispatched officers not to do?" I replied "tell them not to smile (he'll think it was game) and only send 2 (they sent 8)." They found him at the park. I suggest the Des Plaines police Department call ASA and get some training, like the police officers in Schaumburg have.

Anonymous said...

To Danny's mom: some autistic people have trouble getting words out, feelings, etc...and get frustrated. We call them "melt-downs". Hansel was probably having a melt-down and took it out on his caregiver. My son does it to me when he doesn't want to eat what's being served.