Police in Roseville, Minnesota, charged a former security trainer with two misdemeanor counts of fifth-degree assault and disorderly conduct for allegedly pepper spraying a 20-year-old autistic man in a grocery store.
The incident occurred at Cub Foods after a man, later identified as Timothy Knutsen of St. Paul, tried to alert a store employee about a customer he had seen eating “a doughnut or a cookie” from the bakery section, according to the police. When the staff member said she could not do anything about it since she did not see it happening, the 53-year-old asked to speak to loss prevention personnel.
That is when the young cookie eater began making his way back to the bakery area after paying for his groceries. As soon as Knutsen saw him, he began following him.
Less than 30 seconds later, the store employee heard the victim — a Roseville native whose name has not been released as he is a vulnerable adult — scream.
Knutsen reportedly sprayed him in the face with Mace. What’s more alarming is that the victim was not stealing any baked goods, the bakery had put up a “Free Cookies” sign, which the pepper spraying assailant claimed he did not see.
“[The victim] went to get a cookie from the bakery where it says ‘free cookie,’” a witness told the police. “As he did that, a man sprayed him in the face with Mace. He said that the male did not say anything to him, and he did not get a good look at him.”
Knutsen had already left the premises when the police arrived, but he later called the authorities to give his side of things.
He said he saw the man “eating food, taking food, something else” and thought he was “a kid that was on drugs” because he seemed to be “in a zombie state,” dragging his feet and wearing shoes with heels “crushed down in back.” However, he told the cops he did not feel threatened by him.
Knutsen also claimed he didn’t actually mean to pepper spray him. He said he pulled out the canister “as a precautionary” after the victim abruptly turned around (a natural response when someone yells “hey” at you in middle of a grocery store) and accidentally “hit the thing with his thumb, thinking that he was just holding it firmly.”
Ironically, the assailant just happens to be a man who has certification on how to use Mace, considering he was a training director of one of St. Paul’s largest security companies, American Security, where he worked as a defensive tactics aerosol subject restraint trainer until the incident.
Following the police charges, the company released a statement to clarify Knutsen never served as security guard for either the company or the store.
“When American Security was made aware of the incident, we took immediate and decisive action with regard to Mr. Knutsen’s behavior,” said the statement, adding that the man was “no longer employed by American Security or any of its related companies.”
“It is vitally important that all security officers understand and recognize the appropriate level of response in any situation,” it continued. “We found his actions deplorable and will be reinforcing our training to continue to reflect our policy of de-escalation.”
Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, believes such incidents can be extremely traumatic for people with autism.
“The fact that (the victim) was able to go grocery shopping on his own and be independent in that respect is actually a great thing,” he explained. “The Cub for him was most likely a known, familiar place, and now it’s a place where he’s attacked for no reason. The vast majority of people with autism live with extreme anxiety, and to have been attacked without warning in a place that was thought to be safe can be even more traumatic.”