NOTE: Tessa Lovelace is non-binary, a term for those who don’t identify as exclusively masculine or feminine.
Preferred pronouns for non-binary individuals is not he/she but they/them.
For that reason, those pronouns will be used for Lovelace in this story.
The person filmed by KGW News on June 4 being struck on the head 16 times by a Marion County sheriff deputy while pinned down by three additional officers says the incident may be partly understood as the response of uninformed individuals to people they don’t understand.
Tessa Lovelace, a Portland engineer, says communication issues having to do with their autism diagnosis came into play on June 4 and were a likely factor in how they were observed both by the people of Detroit and by deputies.
“My disability is a communication disability,” Lovelace says. “All of my problems with others are the result of miscommunication.”
The way autistic people present themselves to others can provoke confusion and hostility, so much so that most descriptions of the disorder begin by listing social-interaction difficulties and communication challenges. “I piss people off because I communicate differently and people don’t know how to handle that,” says Lovelace.
Because of this, Lovelace says they annoyed both some members of the Detroit community and officers, neither of whom understood them.
This led, they say, to their arrest.
What the KGW video shows
The video shows three armed officers approaching Lovelace, who is standing quietly. One officer says, “You’re under arrest,” and the three, in seconds, take Lovelace to a position face down on the ground. A fourth officer joins the other three on top of Lovelace.
After Lovelace is held in this position and as Lovelace cries, “I am not resisting!” one officer delivers 16 blows directly and forcefully to the head.
On the day of the arrest, Marion County Sheriffs issued a statement saying that Kevin Straw (Lovelace’s name prior to a legal name change, which is pending) had interfered at a search and rescue command post by shouting. The statement said that when deputies attempted to arrest Lovelace, “he physically resisted and force was used” to take them into custody.
“It was horrifying,” says software developer Nicol Staddon, who is collaborating with Lovelace on several business projects. “Here is someone who is not harming anyone, is in no way a visible threat – even the police couldn’t come up with a worse accusation than “interfering with rescue efforts” – and yet they feel justified in pounding this person in the head, repeatedly, when said person is not resisting… This is the behavior of schoolyard bullies.”
An atypical “vacation”
Lovelace is a university educated Portland engineer with experience in mechanical engineering, software engineering and business information systems. Lovelace was on vacation in Detroit, a childhood holiday spot with pleasant associations.
While camping nearby, however, they did not engage in typical “tourist” activities – activities that would be familiar to Detroit locals. Instead, they used their expertise in gardening and carpentry to water and tend plants along the main street and take on small projects. They attended a city potluck and interacted with most of the small businesses.
This bothered people. Despite positive interactions, Lovelace noticed that law enforcement and city staff was aware of them for several days – and that law enforcement was annoyed with them. “I was told numerous times by officers, ‘you are not allowed on the street,’” Lovelace recalls.
But Lovelace didn’t understand how to respond.
A hijacked narrative
One of the frustrations of the arrest for Lovelace is the way they say the arrest was “co-opted” by Marion County Sheriffs. Initial reports of them as “homeless” a “transient” and implications they were mentally ill – were parroted by every media account of the arrest. It was, Lovelace says, “classic textbook narrative manipulation.”
The simple fact is that Lovelace had encountered a cougar that morning near Boulder Ridge. Using their personal drone, they actually followed the animal until it bedded down.
“I just wanted rescue staff to know a cougar was close to town,” Lovelace says. But even as they tried to convey this, they somewhat realized they couldn’t communicate the information successfully.
And those same communication issues meant that their account of a drone following a cougar seemed to people like Lovelace was “yelling” about “special ops.”
Marion County Sheriff outreach
Sheriff Jason Myers released the first statement about the deputy’s actions on June 29. It said that independent reviews by both the Oregon State Police and the Marion County District Attorney’s office had been completed, and no criminal charges would be filed on the deputies involved.
The Sheriff’s Office also said it had completed its own internal review. Based on that review, in conjunction with the others, it had “determined the need to proceed with a Professional Standards Investigation.” This, it said, would be a “comprehensive, holistic review of the arrest” to see if any policy violations occurred.
In preparation for this story we asked Sheriff Myers questions that we judged would not interfere with the ongoing investigation, including:
• Is the punching of suspects permitted in the training of Marion County Sheriffs, and if so, under what circumstances?
• Does the department have any de-escalation policy for when it deals with disabled or mentally challenged individuals it has received calls about?
Myers replied to us that the investigation would be completed in the next two weeks and, “Until this process is complete, I am unable to answer any more of your questions.”
The people of Detroit
At last census, Detroit was a city of 217 people, so it is surprising that so soon after a widely-discussed, videotaped arrest in the town center, no one would admit to Salem Weekly they had witnessed it.
But we did find two people who would speak with us about Lovelace. Both individuals’ reactions are instructive to this story.
One, an older Detroit resident, says that Lovelace befriended her and did chores for her. “I don’t think the kid was crazy,” she says, “I think he’s a genius.” Lovelace did not appear homeless because “he never asked for money.”
The woman observed, “He was very polite to the town, but the town wasn’t polite to him.”
The woman asked not to be identified, saying, “I live here. I get along with the cops and would like to keep it that way.”
Another Detroit person we spoke to works in retail. This individual also asked not to be named, saying, “I work here, I don’t want to get mixed up in this.”
The retailer told us that Lovelace “was causing a nuisance. He was harassing the storeowners asking if they needed help. He was watering plants [on the main street of town] that weren’t his. He said he’d got the approval of someone, but I doubt it.”
Even Lovelace’s colleague Staddon, who co-parents one high-functioning autistic in college and another severely autistic adult in a group home, recalls that Lovelace could be a challenge to relate to. “Communication issues came to my attention when we first started interacting more intensively over projects,” Staddon says. “I found a lot of the things they were saying difficult to believe. It took some time for me to understand how they communicate.”
Autistics pose a special challenge to law enforcement
Beyond the difficulties autism spectrum people face every day, they have heightened problems with police. The Madison House Autism Foundation notes “Individuals with autism are significantly more likely to come into contact with law enforcement officials, and face additional obstacles in their interactions with police.”
In a 2008 survey of American police officers, Scott Modell and Suzanna Mak found that 80% of police officers surveyed could not accurately identify characteristics of autism. Many of the officers could not distinguish between different types of disabilities and had little or no training on disability issues. This may have real-world consequences; a 2016 report published by the Ruderman Family Foundation showed that nearly half of the people who die at the hands of police have some kind of disability.
“Police are trained to respond to a crisis situation with a certain protocol,” says the advocacy group, Autism Speaks, “but this protocol may not always be the best way to interact with individuals with autism.”
Lovelace sees it in a personal way. “There has always been something off about me, and people know it.” Lovelace was aware that some in Detroit were irritated by them, but weren’t completely sure why, didn’t know how to address the matter and didn’t fully understand they should leave town.
Lovelace notes that no law enforcement or government inquiries into the arrest has involved Lovelace’s own input. The aversion of law officers is evident in other experiences after the arrest, Lovelace says, describing a broken nose, a back injury and “blood covering my shirt and my face and head throbbing.”
“They… didn’t even check the impact site” Lovelace recalls, saying, “I suspect this was intentional because the blows were calculated to cause cranial damage… they’re illegal in MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] for that reason. The damage can cause death or permanent brain function loss.” Lovelace adds they weren’t read Miranda rights and weren’t buckled in for the long, jostling ride to Salem.
“I was taken to the ER under guard… but until my parents arrived, they didn’t really pay attention.” A brain scan was done, “but they wouldn’t actually say if there was any damage,” Lovelace notes.
And, there has been, “zero follow-up.”
The impact site still aches, Lovelace has headaches, pain where the nose was broken and bladder issues that are new.
Worse for them, since June, “Every time I interact with law enforcement, I’m trying to keep the PTSD from flaring,” Lovelace says. “It absolutely affects me every day, because I never know when someone is going to make assumptions based on appearances and do something stupid, wrong or cruel.”