When Majd Darwich realized his 19-year-old son Abdullah, who has autism and is non-verbal, had left their Mississauga home wearing only shorts last week, horror set in.
He says he immediately got in his car to go searching, but he only had to drive a few houses away before he came across what he described as a large crime scene.
Police tape surrounded his street in Mississauga, with multiple officers in the vicinity. In the centre of it all was his son; shirtless, handcuffed, his face bloodied.
“I saw his face, it was full of blood, I tried to see what was going on but the officers were saying, ‘Don’t touch him, stay away from him,'” Darwich recalled.
“I said, ‘This is my son, he’s autistic, I need to see if he’s okay.'”
But he wasn’t okay. Peel police officers ended up subduing Abdullah with a Taser, leaving him with physical injuries and psychological impacts that are still weighing on his family.
Peel police say they were responding to a call on Nov. 4 about “a suspicious person in a state of undress, attempting to enter a vehicle and a house,” and that they’re providing support to the family. But Darwich doesn’t believe the situation was handled appropriately, and one expert says the incident shows there’s still work to be done to ensure police interactions with vulnerable people don’t end in violence.
Moments before he found his son, Darwich says neighbours had spotted Abdullah near the road sitting in a pile of leaves, playing. He says a neighbour informed him she called police because Abdullah looked young, and was not wearing a shirt in the cold weather. CBC News spoke with multiple neighbours who described a similar scene — a young man playing in the leaves followed by a large and aggressive police response.
Darwich says after the incident, he found six spots on his son that appeared to be injuries from the Taser. He says he also had cuts and bruises throughout his body, including on his face.
‘He’s terrified of everything’
Abdullah was later treated at a nearby hospital.
“This was very painful, especially for such a boy like him; he is very sensitive,” Darwich said.
Beyond any physical injuries, he says he’s seen his son’s personality change over the last few days too. He’s become afraid of people, and has been spending a lot of time alone in his room, Darwich says.
“We spent the last four years now at school trying to help him advance, and after this happened he became this shocked boy. He’s terrified of everything.”
In a statement to CBC News, Peel police say at the time of the incident, “the identity and the condition of the individual was unknown to the officers. Upon arrival, officers were unsuccessful in communicating with the male, who appeared to be in distress and was not responding to officers.”
The statement goes on to say the person was apprehended and taken to a hospital to receive medical attention and support following the use of a conductive energy weapon, more commonly known by the brand name Taser.
Peel police say their Divisional Mobilization Unit has been meeting with the family to offer support.
While Darwich didn’t witness everything that unfolded before his son was handcuffed, he speculates officers tried speaking with him, but Abdullah couldn’t communicate. Darwich says officers later told him Abdullah tried to run away, and that’s why he was Tasered.
Knowing Abdullah could possibly be in danger if he left the house alone, Darwich says he planned ahead with that sort of situation in mind.
In 2020, he added Abdullah to the Peel Police Vulnerable Persons Registry — a service in Mississauga and Brampton that allows caregivers of vulnerable persons to submit vital information to a database that will be used by police and other emergency services during a crisis situation.
“They have his photo, his address, I don’t know what more I could have done,” Darwich said.
More police training needed, expert says
Julius Haag, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at University of Toronto Mississauga, describes the incident as “extremely troubling.” Haag’s research explores the individual and community-level impacts of policing and criminalization on young people from racialized and marginalized backgrounds.
“I think it’s indicative of problems that people with developmental disabilities have been experiencing with police for quite some time now,” he said.
He says while efforts have been made in the last few years to expand police training to handle situations like this, it’s clear officers didn’t respond effectively based on Abdullah’s needs. Haag notes a large police presence can be overwhelming for someone with autism as well.
“And the use of a Taser is only going to aggravate the situation.”
Haag says incidents like this can affect people’s perception of police, and believes training needs to be improved.
“That training needs to be done using independent persons from the disability community,” he said.
“This needs to be a core element of how the police are trained particularly in the use of force area.”
Officers visited and apologized, Darwich says
Darwich says uniformed officers who weren’t involved in the incident visited his home Tuesday evening, and told him Abdullah should have been looked up in the system. He says they apologized for the way it was handled.
He says he hopes other families never have to go through what his family experienced. He plans to file a complaint with Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director.
“This has been a nightmare. A nightmare for him, for me and for his mother,” he said.
Recalling his immigration to Canada from Syria five years ago, he says he never would have expected something like this could happen, because he had so much respect for Canadian police.
“I never imagined they would be a source of terror or a threat to my son,” he said.
“I used to think if he was outside and an officer was there, it would mean he was safe. Now I cannot feel safe about him even leaving this home.”
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