'You're Lucky We Didn't Shoot Him'

In 2011, Cleveland Police Roughed Up an Innocent 16-Year-Old Boy with Down Syndrome. The Family is Still Looking for Justice.

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The Cleveland police have been the subject of unending headlines in recent months. From the Department of Justice's scathing investigation into the department's use of force to the deaths of Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson — all occurring within one three-week period in November and December — the force has faced scrutiny for its actions that have largely flown under the radar for the decade since the DOJ last dropped by town to excoriate the men and women in blue.

"There is reasonable cause to believe that Cleveland police officers engage in a pattern or practice of unreasonable and in some cases unnecessary force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution," the Department of Justice announced in their Dec. 4 press conference.

Four and a half years ago, there was the case of Juan Ortiz, which is mentioned in the DOJ report. And the case has ties and parallels to what happened to both Rice and Anderson: poor dispatch-to-patrol communication, a child treated as a hardened criminal, and officers unable or unwilling to adjust tactics when dealing with a mentally challenged civilian.

It goes further: Officers in this case have gone unpunished by their superiors, a trend noted by the DOJ and others, despite an investigation and recommendation of punishment by the Civilian Police Review Board.

Public records provided to Scene and the Plain Dealer by the city of Cleveland (delivered on the eve of the DOJ's December press conference after months of stalling) show the city has paid out $10 million as a result of civil lawsuits against the police department since 2004.

Juan Ortiz's family's federal civil rights lawsuit against the cops is not included in that group, because the city is still fighting, taking its cue from Mayor Frank Jackson, who insists there is no problem. A multitude of witnesses, doctors and Ortiz's family beg to differ.

***

Little Juan Ortiz had been outside the apartment where he lived, with headphones in, listening to music from the church he and parents attended. When he spotted the police cruiser coming down Lorain Avenue, he ran toward his parents, who were sitting outside on a hot summer afternoon.

No one knows exactly why Juan took off when the police car caught his attention — he can't communicate beyond a couple of Spanish words he uses and simple hand gestures, like putting his fingers near his mouth when he's hungry. But he was rushing toward them with Kazimer in pursuit.

And multiple witnesses reported that when Officer Kazimer caught up to Ortiz, just as Ortiz was reaching his parents, he slammed the 16-year-old into a car.

"Juan's parents were standing in the parking lot by his mother's vehicle," declared apartment resident Eliezer Manzano in a court filing. Manzano is Juan's nephew but is older than him, an adult. "Juan ran to his parents and stopped. He began hugging his mother when the officer grabbed Juan from behind, forcefully pulled him from his mother's arms, and slammed him very hard into her vehicle like a football player making a tackle."

That's what others reported seeing too, adding that Kazimer forced the kid's head down and handcuffed him.

The commotion grew at this point, as more and more people who knew Juan and his family and his condition began begging and pleading with Kazimer and Crisan, who soon arrived, to ease up on him, that he couldn't have done anything to deserve the treatment.

Officers should have known, witnesses say, from the beginning of the chase that Juan had Down syndrome. If they couldn't see his facial features, they could have listened to Manzano, who saw Kazimer chasing him and told him about his condition, only to be told, "Shut up, get out of my way."

"As [Kazimer, chasing Juan] approached, I asked him, in English, if there was a problem. I told him that Juan was my uncle, had Down syndrome, and could not understand what the officer was saying," Manzano said. "I told the officer that I could help him. The officer responded, 'Shut up, get out of my way.'"

Manzano's story is backed up by another witness, who was on her balcony at the time: "As the officer was chasing Juan, I observed Eliezer Manzano standing outside his apartment building," she stated, again under oath. "As the officer passed Manzano, I heard him yell, 'Yo, he has Down syndrome,' but the officer did not stop chasing Juan. I then saw Manzano follow the officer. Manzano continued to yell as he followed."

If Kazimer didn't hear it from Manzano, he definitely heard it from Juan's parents, Ramon and Alma, who were right there when the officer captured their son. Alma was frantic about what she saw, yelling over and over again "my baby," one of the few English terms she knew.

Though it's his second language, Ramon can speak English very well, and he continually tried to communicate Juan's condition to Kazimer — who continued to pin his son down on the car with his entire body weight — and that he was hurting his son. Witnesses say Juan was crying and in obvious pain.

"Ramon Ortiz continued to explain to the officers that his son had Down syndrome," the complaint says. Kazimer then said, "I don't care," and to "shut the fuck up."

Manzano again told Kazimer he had the wrong guy: "After the officer slammed Juan into the car, I again said to the officer, "He's got Down syndrome. He doesn't know what you're saying. He doesn't understand."

When Crisan arrived, he did nothing to stop his partner.

And that's when Nina Kennedy — the apartment manager who dialed 911 to report a returned wallet, providing description of the older men — noticed what was going on and interjected.

"The window was open, and the officers were only a short distance from me," she stated under oath. "I yelled to the officers that I had the wallet and they had the wrong person. I said, 'You got the wrong person! That's not right!' The officers had to have heard me given how close we were. One of the officers [Crisan] — not the one pinning Juan to the vehicle — looked directly up at me while I was yelling, but he said nothing and did nothing to stop the others from hurting Juan."

She continued: "I observed Juan's parents pleading with the two officers to let go of their son. Juan's father was speaking in English and his mother was speaking in Spanish. I observed one of the officers push Juan's mother and she fell to the ground. I heard Juan's father tell the officers that Juan was his son, that Juan had Down syndrome, and that Juan did not understand what they were saying."

Everybody there reports the two officers were swearing a lot at Juan's family, hurling insults and slurs toward his mother because her English was poor, and toward Juan, because he didn't speak English. The family is from Puerto Rico.

"I heard one of the officers tell Juan's parents to go back to their own country if they can't speak the language here," Kennedy stated. "The officers were telling Juan's parents and other relatives to 'shut the fuck up' and 'get the fuck away from here.'"

Another witness — a woman who was babysitting at an apartment in the complex — came out on the balcony when she heard the commotion and saw "Juan's mother attempt to intervene to protect him, but the police held her back and pushed her down on the ground.

"In response, the police were screaming and using vulgar and obscene language toward Juan's parents," she said. "The language those officers used would make a sailor blush. One of those officers told Juan's mother to 'get the hell back to where she belongs.' He called her a 'Mexican wetback.'"

The lawsuit also contends that in the middle of the racial slurs and threatening language, after a chase against an unarmed citizen with no connection to the crime, Kazimer said this: "You're lucky we didn't shoot him."

Soon, backup officers arrived to the parking lot. Two retrieved the wallet from Kennedy — who again said that police had the wrong person — while Kazimer put Juan in the back of a cruiser. (One of those responding officers, Sgt. Shoulders, is a defendant in multiple civil rights lawsuits, accused of beating up people he arrests and using racial slurs. He's not accused of any wrongdoing in this instance.)

Finally, Kazimer conceded. Witnesses on the scene reported Juan had been in handcuffs for 15 minutes. The officers contend it was only five.

In his deposition in the lawsuit by the Ortiz family, Kazimer claims he didn't know Juan had Down syndrome — he didn't remember if anybody told him he did — until minutes after he cuffed him. In paperwork he filed two weeks after the incident, he described the following scene:

... As we turned into the apartment complex we observed a male wearing a red t-shirt and jeans. This male upon seeing us immediately fled w/b in between the buildings. I left the zc and pursued this male as my partner gave out our location and facts of pursuit. I pursued this male w/b through the complex then n/b toward Lorain. The pursuit continued until the male ran to the front of the complex and up to a parked m/v where he stopped. At that location I caught up to him, and used my weight to pin him against the car as I attempted to cuff him. The male matched the description and was in the area of the robbery. He also fled as soon as he observed us approaching. When I was attempting to cuff him his parents and several others were screaming at me and his parents were attempting to pull him away from me, directly interfering with his lawful detainment. I advised them several times to let go and that they could be arrested. The males family continued screaming at me and pulling on him to get him away from me. After calling for more cars, I was able to cuff this male, and with assistance from other zcs restore order to the scene. As this occurred, the caller approached P.O.s Tobin and Robles and gave them the wallet and further information... Juan Ortiz was detained briefly c/w this investigation and was released due to having had no involvement...

Kazimer never said he made a mistake, and blames Juan, a Hispanic child with Down syndrome who can't understand language, for not speaking English: "I learned of Juan's condition only after the initial pursuit/detainment. However, his condition did not detract from his ability to ID and flee from an officer. Furthermore, his inability to speak English only made the situation worse, leading him to ignore my commands to stop."

Not only did Kazimer detain the wrong person — a 4-foot-11-inch Hispanic special needs child — the people they had been looking for turned out to be Good Samaritans who had simply dropped off the wallet they found.

The guy who actually robbed the 54-year-old man was arrested shortly thereafter at his apartment after his friend's dad called police to let them know his son and his son's friend may have had something to do with "what was happening in the area." The man, who was 19 at the time, was also connected with another robbery and is currently halfway through an 8-year sentence at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut.

***

About The Author

Doug Brown

Doug Brown is a staff writer at Scene with a passion for public records laws and investigative reporting. A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., he has an M.A. in journalism from the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a B.A. in political science from Hiram College. Prior to joining Scene,...
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