ST. PAUL MN APRIL 28 2017—He was the training director of one of St. Paul's largest security companies — a man certified on when and how to use Mace.
Police were mystified as to why Timothy Knutsen would pepper-spray an autistic man in the face for eating a cookie from a Cub Foods sampler tray.
Knutsen, 53, of St. Paul, has been charged with two counts of fifth-degree assault and disorderly conduct for an incident in Roseville last month.
According to an incident report, in early March, Knutsen was a customer at a Cub Foods at 1201 Larpenteur Ave., when he saw a man eating "a doughnut or a cookie" from the bakery. He told an employee at the store's service desk, but she said she didn't see it and there was nothing she could do.
"(Knutsen) was not satisfied with her response," the complaint stated. He asked to speak to the store's loss-prevention personnel — people he later claimed he was responsible for training. Statements from his (now former) company, American Security, as well as Cub Foods, dispute that.
The cookie eater — a 20-year-old Roseville man who was not identified because he has autism and is classified as a vulnerable adult — paid for his groceries and began making his way back to the deli/bakery area again. Knutsen fell in a few steps behind, the complaint stated.
Thirty seconds later, a store employee heard the Roseville man yell.
The man told police "he went to get a cookie from the bakery where it says 'free cookie.' As he did that, a man sprayed him in the face with Mace. (The victim) said that the male did not say anything to him, and he did not get a good look at him."
Knutsen wasn't there when police arrived. But he called police two days later to give his side of things.
He said he saw the man taking and eating food, and added that the man "came across to him as a kid that was on drugs." When asked why he came to that conclusion, Knutsen said the man seemed to be "in a zombie state," dragging his feet, not swinging his arms and wearing shoes whose heels were "crushed down in back."
Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, noted, "autism is an invisible disability, and the way it portrays can be misinterpreted to somebody who is trained in a traditional fashion in law enforcement or loss prevention."
People with autism sometimes have less muscle tone or coordination, and can also be on powerful medications, Weinberg added.
Police asked whether Knutsen felt threatened by the man. Knutsen said no, but said the man "turned abruptly" after Knutsen said "hey" from behind him. He added that he didn't see the sign for free cookies.
A Cub Foods manager who spoke with Knutsen said Knutsen was a "DT/ASR instructor for American Security" — with the acronym standing for "Defensive Tactics: Aerosol Subject Restraint."
But Knutsen told police he sprayed the man accidentally, saying that as he was holding the Mace canister — thinking it was a different brand — he "hit the thing with his thumb, thinking that he was just holding it firmly." He said he took the canister out "as a precautionary, and he just didn't realize that there was not a safety on the top." He also said the amount of pepper spray that hit the man in the face was "not a lot."
"All I can say is 'wow,' " said Stu Robinson, who teaches in the professional peace officer licensing program at Hennepin Technical College, and was the lead "use of force" trainer for Brooklyn Center's police department for decades. "It doesn't take a lot (of pepper spray) for it to hurt. That's why we use it. It's not fun stuff."
Taking Knutsen's statement to police at face value, "If you're a trainer, you should be very familiar with that (brand of pepper spray)," Robinson added. "It's just like when a cop would take their gun out. They don't put their finger on the trigger unless their sights are lined ... and they've made the decision to shoot. Otherwise, it's a negligent discharge waiting to happen.
"He says he made a mistake. But that's exactly why you don't put your finger on the top."
Weinberg, of the Autism Society, said he worried about lasting damage to the Roseville man's mental state, in particular his quest for independence. The police report noted that after the incident, an officer drove the man home, where he lived with his mother.
"The fact that (the Roseville man) was able to go grocery shopping on his own and be independent in that respect is actually a great thing," Weinberg said. "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."
Knutsen said he decided to leave when the man began yelling and "everyone was looking at him." He later turned his car around, "noticed the squad cars and then decided to bring his groceries home first." When he came back, the police cars were gone, and "he thought it must not have been that serious."
Knutsen told police he was director of training for American Security, a firm based in St. Paul, that according to its website employs "in excess of 1,500 professionals engaged in security and security-related services."
The company released a statement Wednesday saying that "when American Security was made aware of the incident, we took immediate and decisive action with regard to Mr. Knutsen's behavior," adding that Knutsen 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. We found his actions deplorable and will be reinforcing our training to continue to reflect our policy of de-escalation," the statement added.
The company confirmed that Knutsen was formerly director of training, the only person with that title at the company, but was "never involved in any training directly related to loss prevention."
Knutsen, according to the complaint, told police that he "trained the loss prevention at Cub Foods." Heartland Security is the loss-prevention company for some Cub Foods locations, including the Larpenteur location, a franchise owned by Jerry's Foods. American Security acquired Heartland in 2015.
A spokesperson for American Security and Heartland underscored that Knutsen had no role in training Heartland personnel, who also do not carry pepper spray. Cub Foods officials also said Knutsen never provided training to any of their loss-prevention employees.
They released a brief statement saying: "Cub places the utmost importance on customer safety in and around our stores and does not condone the actions the customer took on his own at our Roseville Cub store on March 4."
Police trainer Robinson said he was amazed by Knutsen's reasoning, as outlined in the police report.
"It's not like it's a felony cookie," Robinson said. "The point is, why would you confront this guy? Why is that your problem?
"He thought the guy was on drugs. OK, then why would you approach him? If you have any training, you would call 911 and stay back. ... What he did was totally nonsensical. Especially if he's a trainer."
St Paul Pioneer Press