DOWNEY – Officials from retailer Best Buy have apologized to the family of a mentally retarded man after employees at the chain’s Downey Landing location called the police on the man, leading to him being searched by officers in front of the store.
Michael Ceniceros, 24, has adrenoleukodystrophy, a disease that causes his body to attack his brain tissue. The Pico Rivera resident has the mentality of 10-year-old boy, and he often talks to himself and moves with jerky motions. His ailment, often called ALD, was featured in the movie “Lorenzo’s Oil.”
Store employees on Tuesday called police after they saw Michael quickly walking around the store and talking to himself.
Police searched Michael when he came out of the store, but released him after they realized he was mentally disabled.
His mother, Hanna Ceniceros of Pico Rivera, is furious at Best Buy. She said store employees should have taken the time to realize Michael had mental disabilities. She also wanted store employees to apologize after they became aware of Michael’s condition.
“He’s already been through so much,” she said. “He shouldn’t have had to go through that.”
Best Buy spokeswoman Jill Nezworski called Hanna Ceniceros on the telephone Wednesday to apologize.
Nezworski said the employee at the store followed protocol by responding to seemingly suspicious behavior, but the employee could have been more gracious.
“We feel bad about the whole thing,” she said. “We certainly could have handled it better.”
Nezworski reviewed video tapes of the incident, and she said it looks as though Michael’s attendant lost track of him, which caused confusion.
“I think this could have been avoided if the aid was there with him,” Nezworski said.
Hanna Ceniceros said she was grateful for the apology, but she still isn’t sure she will ever shop at Best Buy again.
“Even now, it feels kind of empty,” she said.
According to Michael, a store employee followed him into the restroom and asked him to exit the store.
Best Buy officials said they weren’t sure if any employees asked Michael to leave, and said videotapes show Michael walking out of the store on his own.
As Michael was leaving the store, his aid ran out to see what was happening and explained Michael’s condition.
Police then released Michael.
“That’s when (store employees) could have just said sorry,” Hanna Ceniceros said.
On Wednesday, Michael laughed about the incident, but said it was frightening.
“I was nervous,” Michael said. “I thought they were going to arrest me or something. I guess I was walking a little fast in the store. They gave me a quick pat down. And they told me what they would do to me if I stole, that they would put me in jail.”
Michael has never had any problems with the law.
His disease came on him when he was 10 years old, quickly damaging the front of his brain, often referred to as the executive region. He laughs easily and is quick to approach strangers with questions about their height, clothes or anything else he sees.
“He lost his ability to reason,” Hana Ceniceros said. “He needs constant reminders just to function in everyday life.”
Hanna Ceniceros said she had no problem with the officers who responded, because they thought they were going to find an intoxicated shoplifter.
But she wants Best Buy to fashion a policy to deal with customers with mental disabilities.
“It shouldn’t matter if you’re black, brown, tall, short, mentally disabled or whatever,” she said. “A person deserves to be treated fairly.”
An expert in law enforcement’s interaction with those with intellectual disabilities said there is very little public policy on the subject of customer interaction.
“The focus has been on hiring and things like that,” said Leigh Ann Davis, who works with The Arc, an organization that advocates for people with intellectual disabilities. “The focus has not been on how we look at disabilities and customers. That’s kind of a different twist on it.”
In general, retailers should know that there is big push to get mentally disabled people out in public. She sympathized with retail workers, saying that most employees are instructed to call the police when someone is acting strange.
Retailers should be more sensitive, she said. Groups like The Arc offer training, she said.
“With integration, with people coming out in the community,” she said. “There are these people out there and we shouldn’t automatically think they’re doing something wrong.”