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Former police captain weighs in on use of Taser on Illinois teen with autism

Officers from a suburban Illinois police department are under intense scrutiny following an incident where officers used a Taser on a 14-year-old boy with autism whom they mistook for a suspect.

Avarius Thompson's family said they are still shocked by the incident with the Dolton, Illinois police on Nov. 20, when officers encountered the teen during a pursuit of armed suspects.

Avarius allegedly ran from officers after they ordered him to stop before one used the Taser, according to police. The boy's family said he was returning home from the grocery store.

PHOTO: Gwendolyn Toran and Eric Thompson with their son, Avarius Thompson speak with WLS after he was tased by police. (WLS)
PHOTO: Gwendolyn Toran and Eric Thompson with their son, Avarius Thompson speak with WLS after he was tased by police. (WLS)

The incident was captured on police body camera footage and another officer can be heard saying he didn't think the teen was the suspect they were looking for.

MORE: 14-year-old boy with autism tased by police in what family says was case of mistaken identity

The teen was treated for injuries and later released from custody. The incident is under investigation.

Sonia Pruitt, the founder of the police reform advocacy group Black Police Experience and retired captain of the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department, spoke with ABC News Live's Linsey Davis Wednesday about the case.

ABC NEWS LIVE: As you watch that video, walk us through what your thoughts are step by step.

SONIA PRUITT: So disappointed in how young Mr. Thompson felt that he was treated. His family. I understand the officers were responding to a call for people with weapons, but here's what's really concerning for me. Less lethal weapons do not mean non-lethal. There are approximately, I think, 500 cases between 2010 and 2021 where there were fatal encounters through the use of a Taser between people in the community and police officers.

It's concerning for me in this particular case that we have a young man who is autistic. Maybe officers have no way of knowing that, but it causes me to wonder. What is the policy for that police department's use of a Taser? What is the training like? And are their standards set in Illinois statewide for all police departments? That's probably a no. And so we are leaving some room for police departments to set their own policy and training, which may not be equal in whatever the communities are that they are serving.

ABC NEWS LIVE: So if you can put yourself in this officer's shoes for a moment, if in fact, they believe this looked like one of the suspects that they're looking for, what is the appropriate response? In particular, if you're telling somebody, "Don't move," and then they run.

PRUITT: Well, here's the point. I don't like to Monday morning quarterback as we call it, because when an officer is responding to someone with a weapon -- that's a high-risk situation. It causes anxiety to rise in everyone: people who are the suspects as well as the officers, right? But what is concerning about this particular case [is] something else for me. [It] is that after the officers encountered young Mr. Thompson and he was tased in his own backyard, there was an officer who said, "I don't think this is him."

And so at what point did they not know that they were chasing the wrong person? We don't see the body cam video from the rest of the incident from the beginning until when they encountered Mr. Thompson. And then in the police report, it was stated that an officer actually identified him as a suspect. So there's a lot of details that are missing.

PHOTO: Body-camera footage shows a Dolton police officer using a stun gun on 14-year-old Avarius Thompson. (Dolton Police Department )
PHOTO: Body-camera footage shows a Dolton police officer using a stun gun on 14-year-old Avarius Thompson. (Dolton Police Department )

ABC NEWS LIVE: And so you mentioned that officer's partner who says, "We may have the wrong guy." So what would be the appropriate steps in that moment?

PRUITT: Well listen. Here's the thing. We don't know what the policy or the training are. So it's hard to speak to what someone has done. The officer may have followed his department's policy. We don't know.

MORE: Video Illinois teenager tased after being confused for suspect

And I think that the lack of trust in the community is part of the problem. Perhaps had Mr. Thompson not run. We don't know that. We don't know what triggered him to run besides the fact that people in certain communities, like the Black community, are afraid when they encounter the police. Whenever the police step out of the car, they feel nervous, they feel fearful, [and] they want to run.

PHOTO: Sonia Pruitt, founder of The Black Police Experience speaks to ABC News, Jan. 17, 2024.  (ABC News)
PHOTO: Sonia Pruitt, founder of The Black Police Experience speaks to ABC News, Jan. 17, 2024. (ABC News)

And so the police should be taking that into consideration. Maybe not so much in a situation where you have someone who has been said to have a gun. You have to be safe, I get that, but way before we have a case with Mr. Thompson being tased we should be having some more conversations and some more actions surrounding the distrust in the community between the community and the police.

Former police captain weighs in on use of Taser on Illinois teen with autism originally appeared on abcnews.go.com