Police report: Autistic man pepper-sprayed in face for eating cookie

A 53-year-old former security trainer has been charged with fifth-degree assault and disorderly conduct after he allegedly pepper-sprayed an autistic man who ate a cookie in the bakery at a Cub Foods in Roseville.

According to a Roseville Police incident report, on March 5 at 5:24 p.m. officers responded to a report of an assault at the Cub Foods on Larpenteur Avenue.

An employee working the service desk told police a man, later identified as 53-year-old Timothy Knutsen, told her a customer had eaten a cookie from the bakery. When the employee told Knutsen she couldn't do anything about it unless she saw him eat it, Knutsen asked to speak with loss prevention.

As the employee went to speak with loss prevention she saw the customer, whose name hasn't been released because he is a vulnerable adult, had finished buying his groceries. The man started walking back toward the bakery. Following closely behind him was Knutsen.

About 30 seconds later, she heard a man yelling.

Surveillance video captured the moments after the incident, showing the autistic man holding his face and spinning around. Knutsen left the store.

The victim told police he was heading to the bakery to get a cookie where a sign said "free cookie" when a man sprayed him in the face with mace.

A day later, Knutsen talked to police about the incident. He said he saw the man "taking food, eating food, everything else" and was upset the employees weren't doing anything about it. He said at the time he didn't know the man was disabled and instead thought he was on drugs.

Knutsen told police he wanted to tell the man to "knock it off." When he saw the man head back to the bakery, he followed him and pulled out his spray as a precaution. He told police he thought the spray had a safety cap on it, but when he put his thumb on the depressor, the spray came out.

Investigators later learned Knutsen worked at American Security as an instructor for DT/ASR, which stands for Defensive Tactics/Aerosol Subject Restraint. Company officials say he no longer works there and condemned his actions as "deplorable."

Statement from American Security

“When American Security was made aware of the incident we took immediate and decisive action with regard to Mr. Knutsen’s behavior. Mr. Knutson was employed as a trainer by American Security and did not work in a security officer capacity. Further, Mr. Knutsen was never involved in any training directly related to loss prevention. He is no longer employed by American Security or any of its related companies.

"His unfortunate decisions during this incident were as a private citizen and not as an employee of American Security.

"Mr. Knutsen’s actions were outside the protocol taught to our security professionals. It is vitally important that all security officers understand and recognize the appropriate level of response in any situation. We found his actions deplorable and will be reinforcing our training to continue to reflect our policy of de-escalation.”

Traumatic experience

Jonah Weinberg, Executive Director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, said an experience like this could be traumatizing for a person with autism.

“For him to be able to get out and go shopping on his own may be an incredible feat for him,” said Weinberg. “It could take him a while before he ever goes back there—if he ever does.”

Weinberg said because people with autism often battle anxiety and are sensitive to sensory triggers, they may appear distant or paranoid—in this case, Knutsen described the man as “zombie-like”.

“I think anyone could look alarmed if somebody shouts ‘hey’ at you from behind and you have no idea why. Add some anxiety on top of that and the stress of being in a crowd, there’s no way to know what this person’s body language was,” said Weinberg.

Weinberg says the Autism Society of Minnesota has trained 3,000 law enforcement personnel and first responders across Minnesota on how to identify and respond to individuals with autism. He was not aware of any training with security companies.