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Parents Sue Wal-Mart Over Arrest Of Daughter With Special Needs

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Wendy and John Kozma are suing Wal-Mart and the Livonia, Mich. police after their 25-year-old daughter, Jodi, was detained during a 2012 shopping trip despite having a receipt for the hair ties she was accused of stealing. (Shutterstock)

Wendy and John Kozma are suing Wal-Mart and the Livonia, Mich. police after their 25-year-old daughter, Jodi, was detained during a 2012 shopping trip despite having a receipt for the hair ties she was accused of stealing. (Shutterstock)

Wendy Kozma was wrapping up her workday with a client when she got a mind-numbing phone call from her daughter: “Mom, this man is trying to take me from Wal-Mart.”

Kozma feared the worst: a kidnapping.

Within minutes, she would learn what was really happening. Her 25-year-old daughter, Jodi, who has the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, was being questioned for shoplifting at a Livonia, Mich. Wal-Mart. Jodi was suspected of stealing hair ties and hiding them in her waistband and purse during a shopping trip with her grandmother, records show.

Jodi wound up in handcuffs, muscled to the floor by Livonia police.

Wal-Mart and the Livonia police wound up in court.

Turned out, Jodi had bought a 30-pack of hair ties and stickers that day, and has a receipt as proof. The suspicious bulge in her waistband was her cellphone.

In a civil rights lawsuit unfolding in U.S. District Court, Wendy and John Kozma of Novi, Mich. are suing the retail giant and Livonia police, alleging they used excessive force on their daughter and scarred her emotionally. Jodi grew up learning to trust the cops, her mother said. Now, she’s terrified of them.

“If she were ever lost or stranded, we always taught her to turn and look for police. All of that has been completely destroyed,” Wendy Kozma said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “I know that this has traumatized her. I want it to go away.”

What happened

It has been nearly two years since Jodi was arrested at the Livonia Wal-Mart, but her parents still are reeling. They want an apology from Wal-Mart and Livonia police, who, records show, dispatched four officers to the scene that day “in a SWAT-like approach, parking the cruisers on the sidewalk directly in front of the store doors.”

Among the lawsuit’s claims is that store security and police were repeatedly told by family that Jodi was “special needs,” but failed to treat her accordingly and instead traumatized her when she didn’t have the mental capacity to understand what was going on.

Jodi just wants an apology — and a bouquet of flowers. That’s what apologetic people do in the movies, she told her parents.

The parents want an apology, too, along with unspecified financial damages and assurance that police and store security follow proper procedures when dealing with people with disabilities.

The Kozmas filed their lawsuit in May in Wayne County Circuit Court, but Wal-Mart requested on June 9 that the case be moved to federal court. Initially, the Kozmas filed a citizen’s complaint with the Livonia police department, alleging officers used excessive force on their daughter and were unprofessional. They filed it the same day of the incident: Aug. 3, 2012.

Livonia police declined to comment. But according to a letter they sent the Kozmas, they deny any wrongdoing.

“In order to make the situation safe for all parties involved, the decision was made to handcuff your daughter, who was initially compliant, but then began to struggle. Officers used the minimal amount of force necessary to gain control and handcuff her. There was no indication that your daughter was injured when she was detained,” Livonia Police Lt. Francis Donnelly wrote in the Sept. 18, 2012, letter. “I have reviewed both video and audio recordings of the incident and find no evidence of unprofessional behavior or excessive force on the part of our officers. Based on my investigation, I have determined that your complaint against our officers is unfounded.”

Wal-Mart, which declined to comment on specifics of the lawsuit, issued this statement: “First and foremost, a cornerstone at Wal-Mart is respect for an individual. We expect all of our customers to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of the situation. Based on the information that we have (about the Kozma case), we believe our associates acted appropriately and followed protocol.”

Wendy Kozma tells a different story.

Here, according to Kozma, a police incident report and surveillance video obtained by the Detroit Free Press, is what happened that day:

Jodi, who was born with a condition that deprived her brain of oxygen and left her mentally impaired, had gone on a shopping trip to Wal-Mart with her grandmother. After checking out, two plainclothes Wal-Mart security officers surrounded Jodi in the lobby and accused her of stealing merchandise.

Unbeknownst to Jodi, she was being monitored in the store by a surveillance camera operator who said she had footage of Jodi picking up hair pieces and concealing them in her purse or in her waistband.

When store security stopped Jodi, she became afraid and upset. The grandmother informed the security team that Jodi is mentally challenged and would not intentionally steal. She tried to show them the receipt for the hair ties her granddaughter had purchased, but the security team wouldn’t listen to her. And they wouldn’t let her calm her granddaughter down. Jodi, meanwhile, had called her mom, who immediately headed for Wal-Mart. By the time her mom arrived, police were there.

According to a police incident report, Jodi was screaming “at the top of her lungs, causing a scene.” A sergeant asked Jodi to put her hands behind her back because he could not confirm if a bulge in her waistband was a weapon, a cellphone or stolen merchandise. Then came the handcuffs. Jodi pulled away and began screaming, reaching for her grandmother. She was placed against a wall. Two officers “muscled Jody to the ground and handcuffed her behind her back,” the report said. They took her to a private office and started questioning her.

She repeatedly denied stealing anything.

Within minutes, her mom showed up. She tried to enter the interrogation room, but police stopped her. After pleading and threatening a lawsuit, she got in. The image of her catatonic, handcuffed daughter broke her heart.

“I said, ‘Jodi, It’s OK. Mom’s here,’ ” Kozma recalled through tears, noting her daughter assured her she was fine. “She said, ‘That’s OK. God is with me.’ … I believe that God was with her and kept her calm.”

During questioning, an officer threatened to conduct a body search, but Kozma intervened and searched her daughter herself. She lifted her shirt, her pant legs and opened her waistband. Nothing was found. She emptied the contents of her purse. No stolen goods were inside.

The police let her go.

A bigger problem?

Jodi left the store, tears streaming down her face. She has not been to a Wal-Mart since. And she gets frazzled when she sees Wal-Mart TV commercials, or a Wal-Mart truck on the highway.

“How did it get to that?” said a frustrated Kozma, who believes Wal-Mart and police escalated the situation by not letting Jodi calm down and handcuffing her.

Prominent plaintiff’s attorney Deborah Gordon, who is representing the Kozmas, agreed, saying Wal-Mart and police “over-reacted in a goonish way.”

“We’re not talking about a (stolen) gun or a plasma TV or cash. We’re talking hair ties. And it turned out she didn’t have anything,” Gordon said. “Instead of everybody taking a deep breath and telling the grandmother, ‘Would you mind sitting in a chair here and wait for her mom,’ they’ve gotta do their ramped-up Rambo crap.”

Gordon said the case highlights an all-too-common problem with police authorities: a lack of procedures in place to deal with people with disabilities.

“Everybody who has a child who is compromised relates totally to how out-of-control this can get,” said Gordon. “They wouldn’t let the mother in? Why? Are you people all insane?”

Kozma, meanwhile wants assurance from police that this doesn’t happen to anyone ever again. And, she added: “I want them to go a step further and say, ‘We were wrong.’”

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Comments (54 Responses)

  1. steve says:

    My state had a program to train first responders how to approach a situation like this. The goal of the training was to help them manage the situation without a similar outcome to what we see here. The training was having measurable results until budget cuts slowed its implementation. As a community we need to impress the importance of programs like this to our decision making advocates and policy officials.

  2. Lee says:

    As devastating as this was emotionally, I am very glad Jody is okay physically. This reminds me of a story last year when a young man with Down syndrome was wrestled to the ground by police officers in a movie theater. He was with his PCA and had refused to leave the theater when the show ended. Instead of working it out with the PCA or calling his family or simply asking him to pay for another ticket, the police were called. They muscled him to the ground and handcuffed him, as happened with Jody, but they put so much pressure on him that he developed respiratory distress and died! I am brought to tears each time I think of this–it could have easily happened to my adult son with Down syndrome. I pray that all public servants would be trained well to respond intelligently, calmly, and compassionately in these situations.

  3. Lee says:

    I am Asperger and gay. I am also near 60 years old. I can tell you story after story about how cops tend to pick on the weak.

    I have long thought it was because many cops are actually sadists who enjoy hurting people. Over the decades I’ve seen happy cops hurting people.

  4. loreen booker brown says:

    What happened to Jodi is all parents with special needs greatest fear. We are reminded of the individual with Down Syndrome who was killed at the movie theater. He was restrained because he did not leave the theater after the movie was over. He did not leave because his support person told him to wait for her to bring the car around. Most recently we have the school systems handcuffing a student that weighed a 100 pounds because he had a melt-down when not allowed to get ahead of the line and get his lunch. This was a normal procedure for him but his para-professional was not with him. When the parent arrived at the school and demanded they remove the handcuffs, the school police arrested her and took her to jail. This same school two years later held a special needs student in handcuff for five hours. They did not give him any food and only one bottle of water. His rare disability required water every hour and special diet that is brought to school from home daily.
    These stories reflect the need for stronger ADA and IDEA laws and regulations. There should be legal ramifications subsequent to child protective services and adult/elderly abuse when these incidents occur. Sensitivity training is either not occurring or we are experiencing a culture that does not value those individuals who are the most vulnerable in our society. Unfortunately, I believe the latter is the cause of the increase in negligence of those in authority.
    In this climate the best defense is a strong offense achieved by strong laws, regulations, reporting and parent re-enforcing our guards while remaining calm.

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