Tybee police 'apologetic' for Tasing autistic teenChief defends officers' response; city manager vows training; witness disputes reports
By Michael Atkins
Jun. 02, 2010
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Police on Tybee Island issued a careful apology Monday for wounds an autistic teenager suffered when officers Tased and threw him to the ground outside a bar Friday night.
Yet Police Chief James Price starkly defended those officers' actions, saying the teen, Clifford Grevemberg, appeared intoxicated and police were unaware of his medical condition.
Price also cited the "rowdy, raucous" atmosphere that surrounded the Beach Bum Parade that evening on Tybee.
"We are sincerely apologetic for the injuries suffered by Mr. Grevemberg," Price said in a statement. "We are also sorry that he was left unattended" amid such revelry.
Grevemberg, 18, was sitting outside the Rock House, at Butler Avenue and Tybrisa Street, about 10:45 p.m. Friday, while his brother went inside to order food, according to accounts from the family.
Read the incident report here.
Police approached and questioned him; a struggle ensued, and an officer shot Taser barbs into the teen's back.
Grevemberg, who stands 6-foot-9, fell to the ground, suffering a broken front tooth and scrapes on his face and knee. He was charged with disorderly conduct and released from custody that night. His family has said he has never consumed alcohol.
On Monday, Tybee City Manager Diane Schleicher called the incident "very unfortunate" and said Tybee police officers would undergo training to be better prepared when encountering a person with special needs.
Meanwhile, a man who witnessed the incident said the police reports were largely inaccurate.
Members of Grevemberg's family declined to comment on the revelations Monday, explaining they needed a break from the stressful ordeal.
Police recount sequence
According to the incident report, officers Timothy Sullivan and Travis Daniel approached Grevemberg, who was "staggering back and forth" in front of the Rock House, at 10:43 p.m.
The officers asked Grevemberg if he had been drinking, and Grevemberg answered, "Yes," according to the police documents.
The teen also told the police his age and that his brother was getting food inside.
Daniel reported that Grevemberg's "responses were slow and slurred" and "his eyes seemed to be in a fixed gaze."
When asked for identification, Grevemberg tried to walk away, according to the police.
"I then grabbed his arm to stop him," Sullivan wrote in the incident report. "He began pulling away from me and swinging his arms wildly."
Daniel told him to stop struggling and when he did not, the officer fired the Taser at Grevemberg's back, causing him to collapse forward, police reported.
Paramedics arrived and treated Grevemberg for the injuries. A crowd that included the brother, who was irate, began to swell, and Grevemberg was taken to the police department, officers reported.
There, he was booked and released to his parents, who were upset and demanding an explanation, according to the police report.
Price, the police chief, said in a statement released Monday that the incident reports bear witness to complex circumstances, difficult for officers to discern.
"The officers had no way of knowing that Mr. Grevemberg was autistic and unable to converse in a normally sociable manner with other adults," Price said. "He showed many of the characteristics of an intoxicated person. He was a foot taller than both of the involved officers. He became violent for no obvious reason."
He added: "The officer with the Taser ended the fight and prevented further injuries to Mr. Grevemberg and to the officers themselves."
Speaking generally, Maj. Harlan Proveaux, who directs the regional police academy in Savannah, said officers must often make split-second decisions in uncertain situations.
"It's easy to play quarterback after the pass has been thrown," Proveaux said. "An officer has to do what he thinks he has to do to protect himself and the individual. If a Taser wasn't reasonable, what would have been reasonable? Officers are limited in the tools they have available."
He said academy curriculum covers encounters with an impaired person.
But, Proveaux added, those conditions are often not immediately recognizable.
In the Tybee Island case, witness Matthew Tyson disputed much of the reports released by police on Monday, particularly the accounts that Grevemberg swung his arms or resisted the officers.
Tyson, 27, said he was walking toward the Rock House when he saw police speaking with Grevemberg, who was sitting on the curb.
The officers then stood Grevemberg up and asked him twice for identification, Tyson said.
"One officer grabbed him by his arm pretty tight," Tyson recalled, adding that Grevemberg appeared to be startled. "But he wasn't trying to run away or snatch his arm away."
That's when the second officer grabbed Grevemberg's other arm, Tyson said.
"They proceeded to throw him to the ground," Tyson said. "And that's when they shot the Taser."
He said onlookers began to clamor, and an ambulance arrived shortly after.
"I witnessed police brutality - there's absolutely no excuse for what I saw," Tyson said. "They didn't take time to accurately see what was going on with this young man and assumed he was some problem kid who needed to be handled very, very roughly."
He added: "(Grevemberg) wasn't out of control at all. The only people who were out of control were the officers."
Schleicher said Monday the incident occurred amid a "perfect storm" and said the Beach Bum event often attracts swarms of underage drinkers.
"Still, training is needed," Schleicher said. "We will be getting some special needs training so (officers) will recognize situations like that."
She said she had discussed the matter with Chief Price and the department would likely work with another agency in arranging the sessions.
Grevemberg, meanwhile, awaits an appearance at the Tybee Municipal Court on July 27.
In his statement, Price said: "As his case finds its way through the justice system, we are certain the judge will take into account any and all mitigating circumstances in rendering his decision."