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White Adoptive Mother Stunned By Vermont Cops’ Violent Response After She Called Them to Teach Black Son a Lesson

The adoptive mother of a Black teenager with special needs filed a lawsuit against the city of Burlington, claiming police officers used excessive force when they arrested her son after he allegedly stole a handful of vape pens in 2021.

The civil action, filed on Jan. 30 in Vermont Superior Court, will be handled by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, along with the New York City branch of Latham & Watkins, an international law firm, with help from the MacArthur Justice Center, which specializes in police misconduct cases.

The suit seeks unspecified punitive damages and calls for anti-bias training for officers, as well as a policy that would ban the city’s emergency personnel from using ketamine on anyone who may be experiencing a mental health episode. 

White Adoptive Mother Stunned By Vermont Cops Volient Response After She Called Them to Teach Black Son a Lesson
Burlington police officers surround Cathy Austrian’s son. (Photo: YouTube screenshot/AP News)

At the core of the lawsuit are allegations that Burlington officers “needlessly escalated” when they confronted Cathy Austrian’s 14-year-old son, while paramedics showed up later and injected the boy with ketamine — the same sedative that killed Elijah McClain in a similar encounter with Colorado police officers in 2019, despite the 23-year-old having committed no crime.

In that case, two paramedics were convicted in December of criminally negligent homicide after a jury determined they administered the drug that caused McClain to go into cardiac arrest before he died three days later.

The Burlington case, meanwhile, has reignited a national debate over police use of force nearly four years after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd during a 2020 arrest, leading to nationwide calls for police reforms and racial justice.

Austrian alleges that the actions of the officers and emergency responders amounted to racial discrimination against her son, while the incident underscored the pressing need for more police oversight in Burlington, the filing says.

“I’m committed to this because of my family,” she told Seven Days, an independent alt-weekly publication in Vermont. “What happened was wrong, and I’ll do whatever I can to see that there can be change, justice and healing.”

The boy is not named in the lawsuit because he is a minor.

Austrian began caring for the boy in 2005 when he was about 5 months old, eventually adopting him and helping him deal with his cognitive challenges.

Despite being in eighth grade, the boy’s academic abilities were only at a fourth-grade level, and at the time of the police encounter, he had been diagnosed with ADHD and “complex trauma,” the lawsuit said.

Austrian claims the police department was fully aware of the child’s developmental disabilities before dispatching two officers to her home in Old North End in May 2021 after the teen stole several vape pens from a nearby convenience store.

Before the incident, police officers had visited Austrian’s home several times before and managed to peacefully resolve conflicts involving the boy.

Upon discovering the stolen products, Austrian decided it was a teachable moment and called local police, thinking it would impart a valuable life lesson.

It was a consequential decision.

At the same time that Austrian called the police, the store clerk also phoned authorities to report the young suspect had been carrying a hammer.

Later, when Officers Kelsey Johnson and Sergio Caldieri arrived, Austrian told them that her 230-pound son had a recent MRI on his heart and that his doctor had adjusted his ADHD medication. 

She also expressed concerns that the boy might be experiencing delusions.

As the officers made their way inside to question the boy, Austrian noticed she had failed to confiscate one of the vape pens, which the boy was still holding in his hands.

At that point, the officers began asking the boy to hand the item over, but he remained silent and refused to comply while sitting on the bed in his room. 

The passive standoff lasted about 10 minutes before the officers donned black gloves and grabbed the teen.

The episode was captured on police bodycam footage, in which Officer Johnson is heard saying, “I’m not playing this game anymore,” before approaching the child.

From there, officers slammed the boy down on the bed, seized the vape pen, and began to retreat.

However, as the officers eased up, the boy swung his arms around aggressively and landed a punch on Caldieri, which the officer claimed in an internal report filed later in the matter.

At that point, the officers handcuffed the boy and pinned him face down on the floor while the boy continued to struggle, the lawsuit claims.

“Instead of … decelerating and disengaging from the encounter, the two officers again responded with disproportionate force, treating the 14-year-old as if he were an imminent and serious danger to their person,” the family’s claim states.

During the emotionally charged episode, the boy screamed and cussed at the officers while hyperventilating to catch his breath.

Worried that her son might have a heart attack, Austrian urged one of the officers at the scene to call EMTs.

“He can’t stand to be restrained,” Austrian told the sergeant, according to Seven Days, which reviewed the lawsuit. “It’s not fair to him; he’s 14. He needs some medical help. Please.”

Paramedics with the Burlington Fire Department arrived and placed a “spit hood” over the boy’s head, leading to another intense struggle. 

After consulting with a doctor, the EMTs injected the boy with the sedative ketamine and took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with “excited delirium” —  a contentious condition criticized by medical experts and frequently linked to police custody deaths that disproportionately affect Black people.

The lawsuit states that Austrian was informed by the paramedics that they would administer “something to help him calm down.” However, they did not specify that it would be ketamine.

The next day, the teen was released from the hospital “bruised, disoriented and traumatized by his experience,” the lawsuit says.

Adante Pointer, a civil rights attorney based in San Francisco, stated that initially, officers had acted appropriately by discussing consequences and attempting to build rapport with the boy.

“The turning point in this chain of events is when officers decided to go hands-on,” said Pointer, according to The Associated Press.

“There wasn’t any urgency here, there wasn’t any emergency where they had to force physical confrontation,” said Pointer, who noted that the teen was already contained in a room with his mother and was not a threat to flee.

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