Vermont Fire Department Sued Over Ketamine Injection

The mother of a 14-year-old boy with developmental disabilities has filed suit against the City of Burlington, Vermont accusing police and firefighters of racial bias, excessive force, and unnecessarily injecting her son with ketamine in an effort to subdue him in 2021. Cathy Austrian filed suit in Chittenden County Superior Court accusing the city of several state law violations, including violations of Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution and the Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act.

The incident that triggered police involvement developed in a rather unusual way: Austrian became aware that her son, identified in the complaint as J.A., stole some vaping products from a gas station. She called the police expecting their involvement would help teach her son a lesson. The incident escalated to the point where fire department medics sedated the boy, who survived the ordeal.

Austrian is represented by the ACLU of Vermont. Quoting from the complaint:

  • J.A. is a Black minor child with a well-documented history of behavioral and intellectual disabilities who was 14 years old at the time of the incident giving rise to this Complaint.
  • On May 15, 2021, J.A.’s mother, Cathy Austrian, called BPD and welcomed two BPD officers—City employees—into her home following J.A.’s low-level retail theft of vape pens from a local gas station.
  • The officers followed Ms. Austrian upstairs, where she expected them to speak with J.A.
  • Almost immediately, the officers were—or at the very least should have been—aware that J.A. had some kind of mental, intellectual, or emotional disability based on Ms. Austrian’s instruction, BPD’s familiarity with J.A., and the officers’ observations of J.A., who sat on his bed, largely non-communicative, for the first 10 minutes of their encounter.
  • After recovering all the stolen items except one, and despite having knowledge of J.A.’s status as a child with emotional and intellectual disabilities, the officers threatened J.A. with handcuffing and arrest if he did not produce the final item, which he held in his hand while remaining quietly seated, posing no risk to the officers.
  • At that point, the BPD officers could simply have ended the encounter and, if warranted, written a citation for shoplifting to 14-year-old J.A.—an unarmed child who posed no threat to himself or others, and who the BPD officers knew had a disability, was acting strangely, and did not want to be encroached upon or touched.
  • Indeed, one officer even represented that was the full extent of what would happen—stating that if J.A. did not return the vape pens, “you’re getting paperwork.”
  • Yet, shortly thereafter, the two BPD officers needlessly accelerated and escalated the encounter by approaching J.A.—contrary to BPD Directives that dictate providing time and space (should BPD even deem it necessary to continue such an interaction).
  • After witnessing several minutes of J.A. screaming and contorting his body in response to the officers’ physical restraint, Ms. Austrian asked that medical assistance and EMS be contacted.
  • Despite learning from Ms. Austrian upon his arrival that J.A. had “developmental delays” and that being confined would only exacerbate his distress and the manifestations of his disability, a BPD sergeant requested paramedic City employees place an opaque mesh bag over J.A.’s head.
  • J.A. began to scream even more loudly, with his body remaining tense.
  • Rather than recognize J.A.’s response as a foreseeable reaction related to his disability and the result of BPD’s unnecessary escalation, J.A. was labeled as experiencing “excited delirium”—a racialized and unsubstantiated condition rejected by the medical community and often attributed to the victims of police violence who are Black.
  • Despite knowing of J.A.’s heart problems and disabilities, Burlington Fire Department (BFD) paramedics sought to inject J.A. with ketamine, a highly potent fast-acting anesthetic used to induce loss of consciousness.
  • Upon receiving permission from an off-site doctor, the paramedics injected J.A. with ketamine against his expressed wishes.
  • The injection of ketamine rendered J.A. unconscious, and the paramedics removed J.A. in a stretcher bag, bringing him to the hospital, where he remained on a heartrate monitor for the night.
  • Despite having knowledge of J.A.’s special needs and the need to accommodate J.A.’s disability, BPD officers needlessly escalate the interaction, contrary to BPD policy.
  • Racial bias drove the officers’ and paramedics’ response to J.A.
  • As a young Black teen, J.A.’s terror and confusion at finding himself suddenly handcuffed and at the mercy of two white officers were apparent: during the incident, J.A.’s body continuously thrashed as he screamed, “I’m Black.”
  • J.A. also made clear his fear—and expectation—of police brutality, expressing concern that the officers would “do to me what you did to George Floyd.”
  • J.A.’s experience of racial mistreatment was not imagined: the speed and aggression of the officers’ physical response to J.A.—and the exaggerated language used to describe J.A. in Officer Caldieri’s Use of Force Report—show that racial stereotypes and implicit bias directly contributed to J.A.’s mistreatment and the City’s refusal to accommodate his needs.
  • First, the speed and aggression with which the officers moved to control J.A.—a child with known disabilities—based on a fleeting and reflexive flailing of his arms suggests the officers viewed J.A. as a much greater threat to their safety than he actually was.
  • Second, Officer Caldieri’s Use of Force Report describes J.A. and the encounter with him in an exaggerated manner—including that officers were forced to place him in a “hammerlock” “for our safety” and stating that J.A. “got to his feet and closed the distance to us” and “began punching and elbowing . . . erratically and with determination”—a hyperbolic mischaracterization of J.A.’s response.
  • BFD paramedics’ response to J.A. was likewise rooted in racial stereotypes.
  • Rather than viewing J.A. as a child with a disability in need of accommodation or a community member experiencing a legitimate trauma response, BFD pathologized J.A.’s foreseeable distress as behavioral deviancy in the form of “excited delirium.”

The complaint accused the city of “deliberate indifference” with regard to the training and supervision of Burlington Fire Department personnel.

For the record, the American Medical Association, the American College of Emergency Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association oppose the use of the term excited delirium “until a clear set of diagnostic criteria are validated.” More on the AMA’s policy can be found here.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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