Garion Gliniewicz is autistic and has trouble communicating. As his mom, Kristie Teer, describes it, "A lot of the things he says are understandable, but for a stranger it can be very, very hard to understand him. Language is a big issue."
This past Sunday, Teer was with her 18-year-old son at the Springs Church on Jet Stream Drive, when Garion got up to go to the bathroom.
Garion's father Shawn Gliniewicz was told later by church security what happened.
A security guard noticed Garion and thought he was behaving oddly. He followed the teenager into the bathroom and noticed that he pocketed a clear plastic item. The guard then confronted Garion, suspecting the teen was using drugs.
Garion was nonverbal and didn't make eye contact, which the guard found more suspicious. Teer says her son's new Mohawk probably didn't help.
When Teer found her son, she says, he was facing a wall, handcuffed, with a uniformed police officer and a plainclothes security officer on either side. She broke into a sprint, but two security officials stepped in front of her.
"I said, 'That's my son, and he has autism,'" she says.
Teer was told that someone had seen her son put what looked like a syringe into his pocket. It was a pen.
According to Nima Reza, a staff pastor with Springs Church, the head of security is a Colorado Springs police officer. He and an off-duty officer hired for services were conducting the search of Garion.
"The security team is pretty well-trained," says Reza, adding that the officers handcuffed Garion "to protect this young man from himself and other congregants."
Police spokesman Sgt. Steve Noblitt says it sounds to him that the officers did nothing wrong. Regardless of Garion's disability, if he behaved suspiciously, it is incumbent on an officer to investigate, Noblitt says. "To me, when you say autism, it isn't as important as the actions of the kid that day."
Noblitt says CSPD doesn't have specific training to identify developmental disabilities, such as autism. "How do you train officers for every disability? You can't possibly. We train our officers to use the least amount of force to gain compliance."
Teer notes that it's fortunate that her son doesn't become violent in stressful situations, as sometimes occurs with autism. But even still, it's unnerving to imagine what could have happened, says Shawn Gliniewicz.
"If you are trying to get him to sit down in a chair and be quiet, he might just walk off," he says. "What's a cop going to do in that situation?"
Teddi Roberts, executive director of The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region, says it's easy to find stories online of interactions between autistic teens and police that turn ugly quickly.
"This is one of the advocate's worst fears," Roberts says. "Unfortunately, the police don't always step back and think, 'OK, is this a person with a disability?'"
Garion has never had an issue with authority figures before, his dad says, but when asked now whether he will talk to a police officer again, Garion responds: "No, because handcuffs hurt."
Shawn might give his son an ID bracelet noting his disability.
"We are trying to create this independence for him, so that he can have this semi-independent life," he says. "And now, what's going to happen every time he talks to a cop, and the cop doesn't understand what he's saying?"