Last Wednesday evening, a little after 5 pm, an autistic 28-year-old Kodiak man walked down his quiet neighborhood street to check the mailbox, as he does most days. His condition is such that it’s one of the few tasks that he’s comfortable executing and is allowed to do unsupervised.
It’s unclear what happened next, but when Nick Pletnikoff”s mother found him, he was surrounded by three Kodiak Police Officers who had pinned him to the ground and pepper-sprayed him from point-blank range.
In a very short statement faxed to media on Monday, the Kodiak Police Department defended the actions of the three officers, saying they were responding to a 911 call that someone was trying to steal something from a car parked along Steller Avenue, the street where Nick Pletnikoff grew up.
His mother, Judy Pletnikoff, demanded answers why her son had been assaulted, and the only thing she was told by the police was that he refused to answer their questions.
“I said, ‘He has autism. He would really struggle to answer your questions. He lives right there,’” she said. “And I saw they had his ID and could see where he lived.”
Pletnikoff was not charged with any crime and was released.
The KPD’s official statement regarding the incident stated that the use of force against Pletnikoff was, “minimal and necessary under the circumstances in order to maintain officer and community safety.” It did not elaborate what kind of threat Nick Pletnikoff was to them or the community, or why he was pepper-sprayed while pinned to the ground by the three police officers.
Judy Pletnikoff found her son handcuffed, bloodied and bruised, and like any mother, she wanted to know what happened.
“I didn’t get any answers, and I asked maybe three or four times who had their hands on his neck,” she said. “But he had been pepper sprayed and he was crying and he said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’”
Chief of Police Ronda Wallace’s office only referred to the incident in its daily police blotter as: “Suspicious circumstances, all OK.”
The event might have blown over without much notice, but an eyewitness posted a description of what he saw on a Kodiak-centric Facebook page, generating hundreds of angry comments. It prompted another local man, Brent Watkins, to stage a silent vigil in front of the police station on Friday. He held a sign that read “Heroes don’t beat up handicap kids.”
“Oh he’s a heck of a kid. Always pleasant, always ready to say hi, greets you if he knows you,” Watkins said. “But he can’t express himself really well, and that’s where things went south.”)
Dissatisfied with a lack of response from the police department, the Pletnikoff family retained Kodiak defense attorney Josh Fitzgerald, who, in conjunction with Angstman Law Office of Bethel, are investigating the incident.
“We think that these three officers that had him down on the ground and then pepper sprayed him were likely not justified in doing that,” Fitzgerald said. We think think that there aren’t facts that support that kind of conduct. But, we are waiting to see the video, which we understand has been preserved, and audio recordings and things that were at the scene, but we think that this young man did not deserve to be injured at all, and certainly not in the way that he was.”
Since they are public documents, KMXT has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the audio and video recordings from the officer’s body cams and recorders as well as their squad car dash cams.
As for Nick Pletnikoff’s condition, his mother says he’s had trouble sleeping and now fears those in uniform.
“You know he hasn’t slept a night through since then,” Judy Pletnikoff said. “He’s afraid. Definitely afraid of figures of authority and figures in the police. He’s definitely changed by it. But my biggest concerns is how to get him back to his former considerate, reasonable, happy self.” The family has hired an autism specialist to work with Nick and help him process what happened to him and help speed his emotional recovery, she said.