|Gianelos [Everly Community]|
While no one has charged the authorities with acting negligently, St. John’s Community Services, the organization that employed Gianelos’ caretaker that day, has engaged an independent counsel to investigate the incident.
The Arc of Northern Virginia, an advocacy organization for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is also requesting an independent investigation.
When Gianelos, age 45, had wandered away from his caretaker during an outing at Round Tree April 20, his caretaker called the police.
Statement from the police
The first patrol officer to locate Gianelos, on the 3100 block of Annandale Road near Tripps Run, was Master Police Officer Michael Meszaros, a 25-year veteran assigned to the Mason District Station, reports an update on the incident issued April 27 by Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler. Meszaros is certified in crisis intervention team training, After making contact with Gianelos, he “attempted to establish a verbal and non-verbal rapport, as the officer recognized Gianelos had cognitive disabilities.”
The first backup officer to arrive on the scene was Private First Class (PFC) Hyun Chang, a six-year veteran, who attempted to assist Meszaros in escorting Gianelos to a patrol cruiser for safety until they could reunite him with the caretakers, the Fairfax County Police Department states.
“There was a struggle and the two officers and Mr. Gianelos found themselves on the ground,” according to the FCPD statement. “Officer Jessica Kenna and her Field Training Instructor PFC Courtney Young, a 15-year veteran, arrived on the scene to assist with securing Mr. Gianelos in handcuffs to render the situation safe for all, until Mr. Gianelos could be reunited with his caretakers.”
Once Gianelos was handcuffed, “medics from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department were requested in accordance with policy to medically assess an abrasion on his head,” the statement continues. “While awaiting the arrival of both the medics and caretakers, the officers monitored Mr. Gianelos’ condition. Upon arrival of the medics and the start of their assessment process, they determined that Mr. Gianelos was suffering a medical emergency which required CPR and transport to the hospital where he was later pronounced deceased.”
Detectives from the Police Department’s Major Crimes Division, in coordination with the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Fairfax County, are conducting interviews of the officers involved, group home staff, day program employees, caretakers, and witnesses, FCPD says. The Office of the Medical Examiner has conducted an autopsy but has not yet announced the manner and cause of death.
Once the FCPD investigation is complete, all evidence, recordings, witness statements, and other relevant information will be turned over to the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney “for final determination of any criminal liability in accordance with the Code of Virginia,” the FCPD states.
Meanwhile, the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau is conducting an administrative investigation “which will review all actions by the officers for compliance with all departmental policies and procedures,” the statement notes. All of the officers involved in the incident have been placed on routine administrative, restricted duty in non-patrol assignments.
According to FCPD spokesperson Roger Henriquez, Gianelos “was being combative” when the additional two officers arrived. He said the police did not use a taser. The FCPD has not released details about the nature of the medical emergency.
More training needed
“While many circumstances surrounding Mr. Gianelos’ death are not yet known, what we do know raises questions about whether his death was preventable,” states a press release from The Arc.
The organization seeks an independent investigation to look at “whether systemic failures might have contributed to Mr. Gianelos’s death and take all necessary steps to ensure that proper supports, training, and protocols are implemented to protect against loss of life, injury, or trauma.”
Gianelos lived in a group home in Annandale and had a brother and sister in Northern Virginia. The brother, Jim Gianelos, told the Washington Post that Paul did not have a history of violence and when he previously wandered away from his caretakers, he was returned by the police with no problems.
The ARC didn’t have a direct involvement with Gianelos, says Executive Director Rikki Epstein, but is familiar with St. John’s Community Services.
St. John’s did not operate the home where Gianelos lived but did provide “community participation services” to the residents, says St. John’s President and CEO Roger Deshaies.. The organization offers services to people with disabilities “to help them become full members of the community,” by taking them shopping, to the library, or to volunteer at animal shelters, for example.
On the day of the incident, St. John’s had planned a full day of activities for Gianelos’ group, including a picnic lunch at Round Tree Park. “We’re all devastated by what happened,” Deshaies says. “There were lots of personal relationships with him. This was a tragic accident, and we are doing everything we can to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”
Staff who take people on outings “always have to stay vigilant and can’t let distractions interfere with that,” he says. “You have to stay focused as much as you can.”
A failure to communicate
Epstein says the police should “avoid physically engaging” with someone who appears to have mental health issues. The best approach is to “not move them or ask them to move unless there is a danger.” Gianelos “didn’t commit a crime,” she notes.
The chances of an autistic person attacking an officer “are extraordinarily slim,” she says. “Most likely he was trying to communicate.”
The police should have called his caretakers and asked them to help communicate with him, she says. “They were trying to do the best they could but maybe they didn’t have enough information.”
There is no clear definition of “severe autism,” adds Lucy Beadnell, director of advocacy at The Arc. In this case, she says, Gianelos could have understood what people are saying but was unable to communicate verbally.
Beadnell says anyone working with people with a disability should have a safety protocol and action plan in place clearly stating where a person might go if they wander off and the best way to get them back to the group.
She recommends Project Lifesaver, an electronic monitoring system, and would like to see Fairfax County adopt a “smart 911” system, allowing emergency personnel to access the profile of a person with a disability that would indicate whether they are fearful of strangers and list their medications.
The Arc lauds Fairfax County’s commitment to the new Diversion First program, which is aimed at directing troubled people to mental health support rather than the criminal justice system.
Training first responders to deal with people on the autism spectrum is critical, as the condition is becoming more common. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 children is autistic. The prevalence in Fairfax County is higher, Beadnell says, because of the county’s strong special education program and because autism is “significantly higher among children with parents in the military.”