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How can we prevent deadly encounters between those with dementia and law enforcement?



As the nation grapples with another school shooting by another person with mental illness, I can’t help but think about those with dementia who exhibit violent behavior.

It’s not something a lot of people want to think about or discuss. But the truth is that those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias can become violent. My own father became physically violent towards my mother as he sank into the middle stages of Alzheimer’s.

I can only imagine what would have transpired if my mother had called the police the night that my father struck her in the jaw. His flashes of anger and paranoia were at the peak at this time. I can see him lashing out at authority. I can see him ending up like Stanley Downen.

Downen was 77 and was in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, Reuters reported. Police were called to the nursing home he resided at because of a wandering resident. Downen had slipped outside of the facility’s gate, and staff members were trying to encourage him back in.

Downen, a former iron worker who had served in the Navy, was angry and cursing.  He said he wanted to go home. He grabbed rocks from the ground, and threatened to throw them. As the officers approached, one was concerned enough about the threat that he decided to use his Taser on Downen. The older man went down quickly,  his head striking the pavement. He was taken to the hospital and never left. He died three weeks later.

There have been warnings about using Tasers and similar products on the elder population, as they are associated with a higher risk of injury and death, but the officer involved in this case claimed he never heard about the warnings. A lawsuit filed by family against the city and state was settled in the family’s favor.

It’s situations like these that are so difficult to manage. Mental illness by its vary nature is unpredictable and can unleash violent behavior. How do we show compassion for those with mental illness while protecting innocent lives? At what point is force necessary? And perhaps most importantly, how do we prevent these situations from occurring?

In the case of Mr. Downen, better security protocols and perhaps more staffing could have prevented his escape from the nursing home. Better training and established protocols could have determined a different course of action once the police were involved.

One thing seems clear to me: whether you are 18 or 80, we have to figure out a better was to manage mental illness in this country. We either bury our heads in the sand in denial or we overmedicate people into zombies. We need to open an honest dialogue on the subject and then take concrete actions based upon those discussions.


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