Fatal police shooting of autistic boy in California investigated

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Relatives of an autistic boy fatally shot by police while holding a garden tool outside his home are calling for greater transparency by California authorities investigating the incident, the family’s lawyer said on Tuesday.

Ryan Gainer, 15, who was Black and described by loved ones as a cross-country running enthusiast who aspired to study engineering, was killed on Saturday afternoon in Apple Valley, a Mojave Desert community about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

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He was shot by at least one of two San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies dispatched to his home after relatives called 911 seeking help for what civil rights attorney DeWitt Lacy, representing the family, described as a mental health crisis.

In a recording of the 911 call released by the sheriff’s office, screaming can be heard in the background as the caller says her brother is hitting another sister and carrying a piece of broken glass that he at one point had held to his own neck.

The caller also describes the youth as committing “assault and battery” and pleads with the dispatcher to send police to “take him in.”

“Our social safety net for those experiencing mental illness needs to be strengthened,” Sheriff Shannon Dicus said on Tuesday in a statement about the incident. “Most of these calls do not end in violence. However, this one ended in tragedy for Ryan, his family and for the deputies who responded.”

Lacy told Reuters in a phone interview on Tuesday the episode began when the boy’s parents refused to allow him to play video games or listen to music until he finished household chores, sending Gainer into a rage.

He said the father had calmed the boy down, but Gainer grew agitated again when deputies arrived, and rushed outside toward them carrying a hula hoe - a garden tool with a metal D-shaped fixture on one end for scraping soil.

According to the sheriff’s department account of the confrontation, Gainer raised the “bladed end of the tool and ran toward” one deputy who retreated with the boy chasing him in an attempt to “assault” the officer.

‘You’re gonna get shot’

Body-worn camera footage released by the department shows Gainer charging after one deputy with the tool as the officer moves away and is heard shouting, “Get back, you’re gonna get shot,” then turns around points his gun at the boy. The second deputy is seen aiming at Gainer from the front yard. Neither clip shows the moment shots were fired.

The sheriff’s office said deputies quickly rendered medical aid to Gainer. But Lacy disputes this, saying the officers left the boy bleeding on the ground unattended for five minutes and kept relatives and neighbors from intervening.

Lacy said officers ordered all family members from the house then searched the property.

Gainer died of his wounds at the hospital, according to the sheriff’s office. An autopsy has not been completed.

Lacy said a medical professional who had examined Gainer told the family he had asphyxiated on vomit in his throat - an indication, the lawyer said, that prompt medical aid could have saved the boy’s life.

Lacy noted that the sheriff’s department had not yet released full, unedited bodycam video to the family, nor any audio from radio communications between the dispatcher and the deputies.

He said the sheriff’s department knew about Gainer and his autism, as deputies had been called to the home five or six times before in response to outbursts reported by the family.

The family believes Gainer was struck by three gunshots, but the total number of rounds fired and whether both deputies opened fire have not been disclosed.

Black Lives Matter issued a statement on Tuesday saying the deputies involved should be fired immediately and “held accountable.” The group also demanded release of all camera footage and other documentation of the incident.

The organization said Gainer’s death highlights a persistent problem with police using unjustified lethal force against individuals, particularly minorities, who are suffering from mental breakdowns.

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