MOBILE, Ala. — Officers who used pepper spray and a Taser to remove a man from a store bathroom found out only later he was deaf and mentally disabled and didn't understand they wanted him to open the door, police said Tuesday.
A spokesman for the Mobile Police Department said the officers' actions were justified because the man was armed with a potential weapon - an umbrella.
But relatives of Antonio Love, 37, have asked for a formal investigation and said they plan to sue both the police and the store.
"I want justice," Love's mother, Phyllis Love, said Tuesday.
The woman said her son hears only faintly, has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old and didn't realize that it was the police who were trying enter the bathroom.
"He thought the devil was out there trying to get in to get him," she said.
Antonio Love, in a written statement and in a television interview given in sign language about the confrontation, said he had a badly upset stomach last Friday and went into a Dollar General store to use the restroom.
Police spokesman Christopher Levy said Tuesday store workers called officers complaining that a man had been in the bathroom for more than an hour with the door locked. Officers knocked on the door and identified themselves, but the person didn't respond.
Officers used a tire iron to open the door, but the man pushed back to keep it shut. Officers saw the umbrella and sprayed pepper spray through a crack trying to subdue the man, Levy said. They shot the man with a Taser when they finally got inside, he said.
Officers didn't realize Love was deaf or had mental problems until he showed them a card he carries in his wallet, Levy said. He was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct, but officers released him and took him home after a magistrate refused to issue a warrant.
Levy said officers were justified in using force against Love since he had an umbrella.
"The officers really worked within the limits of our level-of-force policy," he said. "We had no information about who this guy was."
Phyllis Love said her son, who has worked in the garden department at a Lowe's store for several years, was scared when he realized someone was trying to get into the bathroom with him. He put water on his face and on the floor after being hit with pepper spray, she said.
"He didn't know it was a policeman until they busted the door in on him," she said. "He had a knot on his head from where it hit him."
Levy said police wish the confrontation had never occurred. The internal investigation will include a review of Love's complaints that officers laughed at him after realizing he was deaf, he said.
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"We'll make whatever efforts we can to resolve this situation, hopefully so this man will be able to trust police in the future so we can help him. Obviously, it's going to be a rough road," he said.