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Friday, April 29, 2016

Investigations underway on police actions in death near Round Tree Park

Gianelos [Everly Community]
Advocates for the disabled believe the situation in which a severely autistic man, Paul Gianelos, died after a confrontation with the police near Round Tree Park in Annandale, could have been handled better.

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.” 


  1. "Training first responders to deal with people on the autism spectrum is critical..."

    It bears repeating, frequently and assertively. Ignorance can kill.

    My heartfelt sympathy goes out to Mr. Gianelos' family and friends. I hope something good can come out of this tragedy.

    1. 7 Corners 75/2/16, 2:06 PM

      I agree, it seems like his caretaker, family and friends should have had more training.

    2. Some people on the autism spectrum have a tendency to wander; while his family and the group home staff could likely have done more to protect him, they aren't the ones who actually injured him.

    3. 7 Corners 75/3/16, 9:50 AM

      That is a cop out. If you are watching a toddler and it wanders off and falls into a well and dies it is not the well diggers fault and you are not without guilt because you did not injure the toddler.

      The police are not a toy, nor are they baby sitters. I feel bad that this man chose to be violent and that his handlers put him in a situation to do so.

      I am happy he chose to get violent with police rather than a toddler or an elderly person.

    4. May I ask what you know about autism? What do you know about law enforcement?

    5. Are you still there, 7Corners?

    6. It's absolutely not a cop-out. I've been teaching children with autism for ten years. I have friends, a co-worker, and a nephew on the autism spectrum. I've spoken with police officers who've had training on how to approach someone with autism, and with those who haven't had any.

      Yes, if Gianelos hadn’t gotten away from his caregivers, they wouldn’t have had to call the police. Got it. However, it happened, and that’s when calling the police shouldn’t mean you’re risking someone’s life, because protecting and serving vulnerable people in emergencies is part of a police officer’s obligation to the public. As for your child-falling-down-a-well metaphor, what happened to him at the hands of the police is nowhere near the same as falling down an inanimate and indifferent well!

      I know for a fact that there are plenty of occasions when officers dealing with autistic people had to resort to drastic measures to protect themselves and bystanders, but there are also plenty of situations in which officers unwisely jumped in, used what courts confirmed was excessive force, and put everyone (including themselves) at risk unnecessarily. The results have often been fatal, and sometimes entirely avoidable. An investigation into cases like this is absolutely reasonable—not because I’m looking to blame anyone, but because it’s important that everyone knows what really happened.

      You are sick to say that you're “happy” that Gianelos got violent at all, and your assumption that he “chose” to get violent with anyone displays your ignorance about people with autism. They are as different in temperament as anyone who's not on the spectrum, including an inclination—or LACK THEREOF--towards aggression. Gianelos' family and neighbors said that he was not violent, and for you to infer that he lashed out at the police belligerently is foolish.

      There’s a long list of reasons (documented by neurologists, thanks) that he may have gotten "combative" with the police when they attempted to put him into the cruiser, including the possibility that he felt threatened and frightened. Regardless of their actual intelligence level, people with autism very often have trouble with communication—we know for a fact that Gianelos could not express himself, and he may have been unable to understand what the officers were saying, especially if he had sensory processing issues. (Something like flashing lights, for example, may cause someone who’s hypersensitive actual pain. If someone on the spectrum is experiencing sensory overload, it may be nearly impossible to see, listen, and think at the same time.) If he had executive functioning deficits, it may have been hard for him to assess himself, moderate his behavior--especially under stress and unfamiliar circumstances--and see himself through another’s eyes. His social-emotional age may have been on par with that of a child’s. I’m not saying that was the case, but that it’s absolutely reasonable to consider all the variables before saying something like “he was asking for it.”

      The day when most, if not all, police officers will have training regarding people on the autism spectrum is coming. Until then, some of us will continue to advocate and attempt to educate the public. Folks like you should try to catch up.

  2. Has the Fairfax police department offered any legal basis for attempting to place Mr. Ginaleos in the police car in the first place? The information offered at the initial press conference, and reported above, was that the struggle broke out only after the police began "escorting Gianelos to a patrol cruiser for safety...." But I haven't seen any Police justification for attempting to take him into custody against his will in the first place, such as an allegation that Mr. Ginaelos was breaking the law or posed a threat to himself or others.

    I also haven't seen any reporters ask about this, although it seems to be both what precipitated the physical struggle and an obvious legal issue implicating "the most elemental of liberty interests—the interest in being free from physical detention by one's own government." Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507, 529, (2004).

    I don't mean to prejudge the issue; perhaps the Fairfax Police did have a legal basis. They may be hinting at one in the statement that they did so "for safety." But, especially given the county's history of violent deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of the Police (e.g., Masters, Culosi, Geer), I hope the media thinks to ask. Given the fecklessness of the Board of Supervisors, it's hard to imagine the Geer case would have resulted in a prosecution of the killer without the Washington Post's relentlessness and the intervention of Senator Grassley.

    That this case involves such a uniquely and obviously vulnerable victim makes it all the more important for the media, even our humble little Annandale blog, to ask some serious questions

    1. The police aren't discussing the details pending the outcome of the investigation.

  3. OP, some very good points and very good questions. I hope we'll get more answers somehow.

    Ellie, thank you for all the information and insight you've provided here!

  4. Dear Ms. Ashford, a superbly written story about a senseless death of an autistic man at the hands of the FCPD. Since the first officer was CIT trained why did three others show up? Please post when and if the autopsy is released.