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Teen with autism was pepper sprayed and shot with Taser for being combative, police say. Family attorney argues otherwise.

Teen with autism was pepper sprayed and shot with Taser for being combative, police say. Family attorney argues otherwise.
A 16-year-old boy, with his mother Tawnya Nevarez to his left, was cited Friday on suspicion of several midemeanor and felony charges stemming an incident in which he was pepper sprayed and shot with a Taser after allegedly assaulting an officer during a traffic stop. During the incident, Nevarez said she told the officer that her son had autism and needed space. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer)

A 16-year-old boy who was pepper sprayed and shot with a Taser after allegedly assaulting an officer during a traffic stop for not wearing his seatbelt was cited Friday on suspicion of several misdemeanor and felony charges, police said.

During an emotional press conference on Friday after the teen was photographed and fingerprinted during his booking, the family's attorney disputed the police department's version of events, stating that the autistic boy "did nothing to justify the treatment that he was given at this routine traffic stop."

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In an interview earlier this week, the boy's mother Tawnya Nevarez said through tears that she repeatedly warned the officer that her son was autistic while apologizing for his unresponsiveness.

"How is it that this routine seatbelt traffic stop turns into a parent's worst nightmare?" said attorney and autism advocate Areva Martin. "Son on the ground, pepper-sprayed and tased, despite her consistent pleas about his developmental disorder."

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According to Burbank police, the officer stopped Nevarez just before 4:30 p.m. near Burbank Boulevard and Hollywood Way after noticing the front passenger, the teenage boy, was not wearing a seatbelt.

The teen told the officer that he forgot to put it on, while his mother, the driver, said she was in a rush to get somewhere, police said.

During the stop, the teen began to argue with his mother and the officer, at one point indicating that he wanted to fight the officer "hand-to-hand," said Burbank Police Sgt. Claudio Losacco.

Nevarez said Wednesday that during the stop, she asked the officer to step back so she could calm her son down, but the officer would not move.

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According to police, the officer, who's been with the department for four years, explained that everyone is required to wear a seatbelt.

After the boy interrupted him with "inflammatory dialogue," the officer decided to "deescalate" the situation by returning the driver's license to the mother with a warning instead of a citation, Losacco said.

The officer then asked the teenager to put his seatbelt on. He reportedly responded that he would only do so when the officer walked away. When the officer stepped back, the boy put on his seatbelt.

According to police, sometime after the boy put his seatbelt on, he removed it and told the officer he was going to "fight him right now," kicking the car door open into the officer's knees. He then reportedly dared the officer to call for backup while his mother tried to keep him in the car.

Eventually he got out of the car, police said, took off his sweatshirt and approached the officer in a fighting stance, telling the officer to pepper spray him.

The officer used pepper spray, but it didn't have an effect on the teenager, who then punched the officer multiple times, knocking off his glasses, Losacco said. At that point, the officer shot him with a Taser and handcuffed him.

Nevarez, a single mother of three, said that her 14-year-old daughter was also pepper-sprayed, and her 3-year-old niece was also in the car. Police said the teenage girl got out of the car during her brother's confrontation with police and was struck by residual pepper spray.

The incident was captured on the officer's audio recorder, but police on Friday declined to release the recording.

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After the boy was medically cleared at a local hospital, he was admitted to a mental health facility, police said. Police said they have not independently verified the boy's disorder.

On Friday, the teen was reportedly booked on suspicion of assaulting a peace officer, fighting in public, obstructing a peace officer and battery of a police officer.

"The goal with the charges is not to prosecute this child, it is not to incarcerate him, it is not to cause him further grief," Losacco said. "It is to actually to get him some services."

But Martin called the pending charges a "way to deflect what may have been an excessive use of force and a violation of (Nevarez's) 16-year-old son's civil rights."

The teen is due in court sometime in the next two months.

Martin said that police agencies should do more to train officers on how to interact with people with special needs.

According to Losacco, both this year and last, Burbank police have undergone "very direct" training on how to interact with individuals with autism.

"Our officers are well-trained and they handle these instances routinely with no application of force, or minimal application of force, and you folks never hear about them because we do a really good job," he said.

About four years ago, the Burbank agency established a mental health evaluation team whose goal was to go beyond responding to incidents and making arrests by teaming up with mental health professionals to offer long-term care, including case management for individuals struggling with chronic mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.

The program — which officials have said has served as a model for other law enforcement agencies — was one of six agencies in 2013 to be honored by Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris.

The agency's critical incident review board will review the officer's conduct — a routine for all uses of force.

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Alene Tchekmedyian, alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Twitter: @atchek

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