The Vacaville Police Department says it has launched a full investigation into the conduct of one of its officers who punched an autistic teenager earlier this week.
The act was captured on a widely circulated home surveillance video published on social media by the teenager’s father, Adam Wolf, who obtained it from a neighbor.
In the video, a police officer is seen confronting 17-year-old Preston Wolf, who has autism, after Preston was allegedly involved in an altercation with a 16-year-old peer.
Neither Preston nor the 16-year-old suffered major injuries, according to dispatch audio reviewed and first reported by Solano NewsNet, which revealed that at least one officer was aware Preston had autism and that the information was widely broadcast on Vacaville’s police radio system.
In a statement issued to Solano NewsNet on Friday, Acting Police Chief Ian Schmutzler said a preliminary investigation into what happened revealed the arresting officer, whose identity has not been released, was unaware of the teenager’s autism when he angrily confronted him on Wednesday.
“Our preliminary review of the available video and radio traffic indicates the arresting officer did not have prior knowledge that the suspect was an individual with special needs,” Schmutzler said. “We are in the process of confirming the timestamps of those various sources, so we have an accurate timeline of the events of the incident.”
When asked by Solano NewsNet if it was possible the arresting officer was in a position where he could not have heard the dispatches related to Preston’s autism, Schmutzler deferred to his statement.
The incident began on Wednesday when an eyewitness reported a fight in progress involving Preston and another individual. According to dispatches reviewed by Solano NewsNet, a third person attempted to break up the fight, only to be attacked by one of the involved parties.
Police were initially warned that one of the individuals involved in the fight had a pipe and that there was a possibility of a stabbing.
Within minutes, several Vacaville police officers arrived to the scene of the fight. By then, Preston had walked away from the area. No stabbing victim was ever located, and officers eventually told a dispatcher that there were no injuries.
A short time later, an officer relayed a vague description of Preston over the police radio system. A separate officer eventually dispatched information that Preston was a 17-year-old who might have had autism. A dispatcher confirmed the possibility that Preston was “special needs” based on prior police interactions with the teenager.
Within moments, a patrol officer spotted Preston on Somerville Drive. Video captured by a home surveillance system shows the officer approached Preston with a stern tone of voice, occasionally using profanity as he directed the teen into submission.
At one point, the officer is seen picking up Preston’s scooter and tossing it onto a sidewalk. He orders the teenager onto the ground, at which point Preston — visibly frightened — attempts to run away.
The officer grabs Preston and throws him to the ground. Preston puts his hands out toward the officer’s chest, at which point the officer deals a single blow to the teenager’s head.
Two other officers arrive on the scene, and Preston is placed in handcuffs. According to his father, Preston is detained for more than an hour before police eventually release him to the custody of his parents. In a statement, Schmutzler described the encounter with Preston’s parents as an attempt to “foster the dialogue needed to understand what happened from all points of view.” But Adam Wolf, Preston’s father, said police demanded his son acknowledge a citation for his arrest. It is not clear if Preston ever signed the citation.
“Uses of force are taken seriously by the department, and all use of force incidents are reviewed by the supervisor, the watch commander, and a use of force review committee,” Schmutzler said.
The police department has now launched a full investigation into what happened. That investigation involves reviewing body camera video, the home surveillance video, full police dispatch audio, and “any other visual or audio evidence we can find,” Schmutzler said.
Still, questions remain over how the police handled the incident.
In 2018, the Vacaville Police Department trumpeted a new project that aimed to readily provide information to police about individuals with intellectual and other disabilities within their community. As part of their announcement, the police department said all of its officers had been trained to spot various cues — including verbal, social and physical behavior — that a person involved in a police encounter has a disability like autism.
Schmutzler declined to say whether the officer who arrested Preston had received this training.
In media interviews, Adam Wolf said his son was not the instigator in the incident: Preston was being bullied, his father affirmed, and he picked up an object merely to defend himself.
Adam Wolf— who repeatedly described himself as “pro-police” — said his son Preston felt like police officers were an available resource for help. After his encounter on Wednesday, Adam Wolf fears his son will never trust the police again.