Autism and the cops: Why Taser was used on man with 'knife' that was actually a hair pick

Anne Saker
Cincinnati Enquirer

Vasant Nelson likes to walk around his Forest Park neighborhood, often barefoot and carrying one of his fidgets, a bottlecap or a ring of keys or a bottle opener. Usually, he is not gone from home for long.

At 20, Nelson works summers at Kings Island and aims to enroll in community college. But Nelson lives with autism, and his parents said they know strangers might misunderstand their gentle son’s behavior.

One September afternoon Nelson left for a walk, but as the clock ticked with no return, his mother worried. Just as she decided to go look for him, a Forest Park police cruiser pulled up. A uniformed officer opened a door, her son got out – and his mother saw a wound under his heart.

Vasant Nelson, an adult with autism, stands with his parents, Chris and Anjali Nelson, outside their home in Forest Park on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Vasant Nelson immobilized by police with a stun gun. The police were responding to a call of a person carrying a knife. Vasant was carrying a comb that belonged to his sister; he was immobilized by police after dropping the comb.

Living on the spectrum

This year, demonstrations in Cincinnati and dozens of cities nationwide amplified a longstanding argument over how and when law enforcement should use force. Communities challenged police not just on matters of race but also mental health.

Vasant Nelson is among an estimated six million Americans with autism, a complex lifelong brain-processing disorder with a spectrum of manifestations. The condition can trigger behaviors that may shock or confuse others, which experts say can endanger people with autism.

Vasant is the third of Anjali and Chris Nelson's four children. From boyhood, Vasant would pick up household objects to carry, Anjali said, “but he’d forget where he’d put something down, which was hard when it was the car keys."

People with autism also can have difficulty regulating emotions and or understanding what others say, leading to police calls for what Anjali Nelson calls “perfectly normal odd behavior.”

The Nelsons collected the Forest Park police reports from the afternoon of Sept. 18. Vasant had gotten as far as the post office on Northland Boulevard, about a mile from home, where at 3:10 p.m., someone called authorities reporting a barefoot man “acting strangely” and carrying a steak knife.

‘Down on your face!’

Forest Park police officer Kyle Lackman responded, steering the city cruiser southwest on Northland. Less than a minute later he spotted the barefoot man on the sidewalk. A dashboard camera caught the scene.

Officer Kyle Lackman of the Forest Park police believed Sept. 18 he was confronting a man with a knife. Lackman discharged his Taser at the man when he failed to obey Lackman's orders. The man actually had been carrying a hair pick.

Lackman radioed, “He does have a knife in his hand, hold the air.” He stopped about 40 feet away, got out, service weapon drawn, and yelled, “Drop the knife, man!”

The loud words froze the barefoot man, then he complied.

“Walk towards me, right now!” Lackman barked the command 12 times. The man obeyed, each barefoot step more hesitant. He raised empty hands.

Officer Chad Finkes arrived, and Lackman holstered his gun for a Taser, approaching the man, yelling to turn away, get on his knees. The man did so.

Lackman then demanded, “Down on your face, right now!”

Instead, the man popped to his feet. Lackman discharged the Taser.

Vasant Nelson, an adult with autism, was immobilized by a stun gun when Forest Park police responded to a call of a person carrying a knife. Vasant was carrying a hair brush with a pick. A Forest Park officer discharged his Taser at Nelson during the confrontation.

One Taser barb struck the man in the upper left quadrant of his chest, another in his groin. He went stiff, falling to the ground. When the shock passed seconds later, Lackman yelled for the man to get on his face and put his hands behind his back. As Finkes applied handcuffs, the man asked, “Seriously, what did I do wrong?”

Lackman walked another 10 paces and looked down. He let out an expletive.  “It’s a pick, man,” Lackman said softly. “It’s a pick with a brush.”

“Oh, the pick with a brush isn’t a weapon,” the barefoot man said. “I’m just using it as a fidget.”

In a much softer, soothing tone, Lackman said, “Ah, but you were holding your hand, buddy, I tell ya.”

“But the thing is,” the man replied, “it wasn’t a knife.”

Autism and police contact

A 2017 Drexel University study found that by age 21, one in five young people with autism has been stopped and questioned by police. Ten days before Vasant Nelson’s contact with Lackman, a police officer in Salt Lake City shot and wounded a 13-year-old boy with autism who had been arguing with his mother.

The social services agency Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities offers a 24-hour helpline to guide police in navigating communication problems. Jennie Flowers, who directs the agency’s Major Unusual Incidents department, said people with autism can go wandering, then become distraught frightened when police find them.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times, we only get involved after something bad happens,” Flowers said. “With some of our folks, some of the behaviors they exhibit come across as intoxicated or aggressive, when really, they have some significant mental health needs.”

Angela Ramos Fields of Columbus founded the nonprofit Emerging Autism Solutions with inspiration from her son Grant, 19, who lives with autism. She said parents’ groups are working with first responders to make them aware of what to look for when engaging with people on the spectrum.

One solution, Fields said, is a voluntary registry for authorities listing children and adults with autism in the community. Parents or caregivers can give permission to pass the information over communication channels to police when they are summoned. Pensacola, Florida, started the first such registry in the country.

“Parents have to be extremely proactive,” Fields said. Situations such as Vasant Nelson’s tasing are “what we fear.”

On his feet 

After a rescue squad removed the Taser barbs from Vasant Nelson at the scene on Northland Boulevard, a police department supervisor took Nelson home and explained what had happened to his distressed parents. Vasant Nelson said Lackman was pointing something at him, and Nelson stood up because he was afraid the police officer was going to shoot him.

What Vasant Nelson carried: Forest Park police photographs of the scene Sept. 18 on Northland Boulevard when Officer Kyle Lackman used a Taser on Nelson, believing Nelson carried a knife. The object being carried was not a knife but a hair pick.

“I don’t want this to turn into a police-are-the-bad-guy situation,” said Anjali Nelson. “I think they desperately need training. If the police had just talked with him . . . “

Within an hour of the incident, Forest Park Police Chief William Arns assigned Lt. Adam Pape to investigate Lackman’s use of force. Three days later, Arns, Forest Park Mayor Charles H. Johnson and City Manager Johnny R. Jones met with local church leaders to take questions about what happened and to play the dashboard video.

“We knew the news media had already known about (the immobilization), which is fine. We’re transparent,” Arns said. “But we wanted to make sure that if their congregants had questions or concerns, they could speak on it firsthand, knowingly.”

Pape concluded that Lackman, believing he was confronting a dangerous man, had overreacted with Vasant Nelson. Even if Nelson had been carrying a knife, he was not threatening anyone. Lackman would have seen that with a lower-intensity approach, Pape said.

“We’re not driving around looking for people to tase," Pape said. “I believe (Lackman) thought, ‘I’m doing great by the citizens of Forest Park, protecting them in this dangerous situation.’ ”

Training and an apology

Arns suspended Lackman for three days without pay and ordered more training. But Arns said he realized that the whole department needed to get better about autism.

“Our mayor made a good point, that there was a time that individuals with special needs were warehoused and weren’t in the community. We did not deal with the individuals with special needs like we do today,” he said. “We definitely have areas where we need to improve. But that’s kind of where we are today, trying to make up for that lost time.”

On Sept. 30, Arns met with Vasant Nelson and his parents and apologized. In a follow-up email, Arns wrote a “very remorseful” Lackman “realizes he could have handled the situation much differently. Officer Lackman is a very professional and compassionate officer who, I believe, will learn from this and be better because of it.”

Pape called Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities for about training. Flowers sent counselor Holly Mott to the Forest Park Police Department for an all-hands session on how to communicate with people with autism.

“Sometimes,” Flowers said, “people are being non-compliant, but they’re not being difficult, they’re not refusing, they may need more time to be able to understand what you’re saying, what you’re asking.”

Arns said he would like Hamilton County to adopt a voluntary registry. But Forest Park can be better "in incorporating not only autism but developmental disabilities into our community outreach. We want to help identify families of special needs, to get to know them, and for them to get to know us.”

Lackman declined to be interviewed for this story.

Vasant Nelson also declined an interview but agreed to be photographed for The Enquirer. The city of Forest Park paid his follow-up medical bills, and the Taser injuries have healed. When he does talk about that September afternoon, his mother said, the detail that bothers Vasant isn't the police action. It's that someone would call the police on him at all. He doesn’t understand that. He was just taking a walk.