Story at a glance

  • A teenager with severe autism died in police custody in a suburb of New Orleans.
  • The 16-year-old’s parents filed a lawsuit against the officers involved.
  • Past research shows almost half of the people who die at the hands of police have some kind of disability.

One year after their 16-year-old son died at the hands of police, Daren Parsa and Donna Lou filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies they hold responsible. 

“Never did we ever think that our 16-year-old son with special needs would die in front of our eyes at this age and in the hands of law enforcement,” Lou said in a press conference. “Unfortunately, it is our reality of a nightmare.” 


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Seven officers had taken turns restraining Eric Parsa, an unarmed 16-year-old with severe autism, for 8 minutes and 6 seconds in the parking lot of a Louisiana mall on Jan. 19 of last year, according to the lawsuit. Police had been called there for the report of a "man attacking another man inside a business," according to the department, who said he "remained violent and bit one of the deputies." In a release that day, their office said Parsa "suffered an apparent medical emergency during the arrest and became unresponsive," before he was taken to the hospital. 

 

The "attack" happened outside a laser tag center the family frequented and was an acute sensory episode caused by Parsa's severe autism, according to his parents, which could result in self-injurious behaviors and injuries to others. Knowing that Eric was nonverbal, obese and autistic, a "large, seriously overweight" responding officer sat on the teenager's back as he lay prone for 7 minutes before another officer replaced him. 

"Crucially, what the deputy should have done at that point, once things were calm and everything was fine, was they should have taken the weight off of Eric Parsa's back," William Most, an attorney for the family, said during the conference. "They should have rolled Eric Parsa onto his side to ensure that he could continue to breathe. But the deputies did not do so." 


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Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers, according to a 2015 report, often in use-of-force cases. In this and other cases, accusations of an excessive use of force and restraint include scrutiny of restraining people in face-down prone positions, putting them at high risk for compressional or positional asphyxia, the lawsuit notes. 

The Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office classified the death as an accident, according to the lawsuit, but included that he had been in a prone position as one of the "contributing factors," along with his obesity and enlarged heart. The cause of death, however, was "excited delirium," according to the lawsuit, which is not a valid diagnosis recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association.

"This case centers on a severely autistic teenager diagnosed with numerous other mental conditions which caused him to have frequent violent outbursts," said the Sheriff’s Office in a statement that went on to accuse the victim’s parents of malicious intent. "While the Sheriff's Office remains deeply saddened over this unfortunate loss of life, it does not intend to allow Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Deputies to be maligned and slandered by those seeking to profit from this unfortunate situation.”


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Published on Jan 19, 2021