A Vail couple say Pima County sheriff’s deputies body-slammed their 18-year-old son who has autism before arresting him, according to a claim filed against the county.

John A. and Chesia Maga are seeking a $125,000 settlement and a change in law enforcement training, according to a notice of claim filed in December. A claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

The claim names Pima County, the sheriff of Pima County and Deputy Michael Barnett and Sgt. Kyle Youmans as defendants.

The department would not comment on the claim, which is standard in pending cases.

Both the Pima County Sheriff’s Department incident report and the account of what happened June 9 according to the claim concur that Michael Maga became frustrated and broke a computer keyboard when a CD he ordered online didn’t arrive promptly.

According to the claim, Michael Maga started biting and scratching himself before pushing his mother aside and running into the backyard.

Chesia Maga reported her son punched her in the back, but not hard, and broke other objects in the house, according to the narrative from Youmans.

This type of outburst was not unusual for the Maga family, the claim said. After Michael ran into the backyard, his father was able to restrain him and prevent further injury.

Chesia Maga called 911 and requested an ambulance to take their son to the Crisis Response Center at the University of Arizona Medical Center, as the family had done in the past.

Barnett was the first to arrive, followed by paramedics and Youmans.

The paramedics treated Michael Maga for scratches and cuts before escorting him to the ambulance parked in front of the house.

While this happened, Youmans spoke with Chesia Maga and then called Sgt. T.B. Parish II in the Domestic Violence Unit.

Parish advised that based on the account given by Chesia Maga, Michael Maga should be arrested on domestic violence charges. Under Sheriff’s Department rules and regulations, physical arrest is required if there is probable cause that an act of domestic violence was committed.

The accounts diverge in describing how Michael Maga was arrested.

The claim says deputies attempted to handcuff him despite protests from his parents. Michael Maga became agitated and stiffened his limbs before being body-slammed into the driveway by the deputies, the claim says.

In the sheriff’s report, the deputies said they used no holds or strikes, but did have to wrestle with Michael Maga for about 30 seconds to a minute in order to put handcuffs on him.

Once arrested, Michael Maga was taken to the Pima County jail, where he smashed his head into a window in a detention cell before being moved to the psych unit, the report said.

No charges against Michael Maga were prosecuted, and “to this day, Michael has a scar on his back from the slam,” the claim said.

In addition to a monetary settlement, the Magas want to prevent what happened to their son from happening to someone else with a developmental disability.

Rise in children
with autism

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, an umbrella term that includes autism and Asperger syndrome, is increasing.

About one in 68 children identifies as autistic, the agency reports.

“Autism is becoming so prevalent,” said Tim Casey, a Phoenix-based lawyer representing the Magas. “Unless they (deputies) are trained, it is inevitable that there will be a tragedy occurring.”

Dennis Debbaudt was a pioneer in training law enforcement on how to respond to individuals with developmental disabilities and wrote his first report on the topic in 1993.

He said a case like the Maga’s is not unusual. There are many actions common to those in the autism spectrum that don’t fit with society’s expectations of how people should act.

People with autism might laugh inappropriately, avoid eye contact, be nonverbal or repeat motions like rocking back and forth or flapping their arms.

“If you didn’t know, it could confuse you to believe they had something to hide or are disrespectful,” Debbaudt said.

Debbaudt had his own share of negative experiences with law enforcement and his autistic son, who is now 31.

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When his son was a boy, he had a meltdown at a toy store. Debbaudt carried him from the store. Instead of understanding Debbaudt was trying to calm his son’s reaction, passers-by reported the incident as a possible child abduction.

Key parts of his training include teaching officers to analyze the sensory environment for distracting sights, sounds or smells, allowing the person to calm themselves before acting, and communicating with clear, short statements.

Debbaudt said the most lasting change happens when law enforcement connects with the local disabilities community and the groups are able to educate one another on how to avoid negative interaction and build a safer community.

“It’s a great group of people who need a little bit of understanding to get along out here,” Debbaudt said.

Mental health first aid

Pima County Sheriff’s Department’s mandatory basic training does include communications lessons, but there are no separate classes dedicated to interacting with individuals who have developmental disabilities such as autism.

Deputy Stephen Howell, part of the PCSD’s Mental Health Investigative Support Team, said the opportunities to learn about mental health have increased since he became a deputy in 1999.

“We didn’t have time to form a good strategy to solve problems in people’s lives,” Howell said. “Now, with resources, we can point them in the right direction.”

Training that addresses people with developmental disabilities is mixed into courses that focus on helping people in crisis or with psychosis. Howell said first responders who encounter a situation with more than they can handle are advised to contact their crisis hot line or take the individual to the Crisis Response Center.

A dozen PCSD staff members, including Howell, attended a mental health first aid instructor training course, held last week, and can teach the program to their colleagues.

“What I’ve been through has opened my eyes to the fact that, of course, people don’t want to be like this,” Howell said. “They want to be well like everyone else.”

While Howell has gone to this and several other workshops, the same isn’t necessarily true of all deputies, because many of the sessions are voluntary.

Pima County has 60 days to consider the claim. If it’s denied, Casey said the Magas will file their lawsuit.

“You need to have 21st century law enforcement training in order to recognize whether elements of domestic violence are met in context of a disabled person,” Casey said.

Contact reporter Mariana Dale at 573-4242 or mdale@tucson.com

On Twitter: @mariana_dale