UPDATE: A second video in this case was released this week, showing the police reaction back at the station. It is almost equally as disturbing. In my opinion, this isn’t a case of “gallows humor” used as a coping mechanism by those in law enforcement, health care, etc. who face daily traumas. As a journalist, I often find that dark humor in private exchanges can help buffer the pain of covering a terrible crime story. But laughing and boasting about injuring an older woman’s shoulder while making “pop” sound effects displays an utter lack of humanity and should make one unfit to serve in any role involving the public. Would any of these officers want their elder relatives treated and mocked in such a way? It also reinforces the urgent need for better training and accountability.
A case in Colorado involving the arrest of a 73-year-old woman with dementia for attempted shoplifting grabbed national headlines this week. It disturbed me personally because my father was in a similar situation. I believe many dementia caregivers fear this situation for their loved ones and we must do better as a community to protect those with dementia from ending up in this heartbreaking situation.
Karen Garner, 73, filed a lawsuit this week against the city of Loveland and its police officers. The incident took place in June 2020. Garner is accused of attempting to walk out of a Walmart with $14 worth of merchandise without paying. Walmart employees stopped her and were able to retrieve all items. According to the lawsuit, she offered to pay for the items at that point but the store declined, instead calling police to report the incident and offer the location in which Garner began walking. Store employees told police that the store had suffered no loss, according to the lawsuit and video of the arrest.
You can watch for yourself what happens next, as a police officer tracks down Garner. Warning: It is disturbing.
Garner is 5 feet tall and weighs 80 pounds. According to the lawsuit, her shoulder was dislocated during the arrest and she now requires assistance with daily tasks like bathing. She didn’t receive medical care until several hours later, though she complained of pain during the arrest. The criminal case against her was dropped by the district attorney’s office, while no disciplinary actions were taken against the officers until this week, when the lawsuit was filed and the video of the arrest went viral.
There is so much wrong here, and it starts way before the officers arrived. First and foremost is that America does a poor job in how it interacts with those who are mentally ill in the public sphere. I don’t know if Walmart has a blanket policy on calling police when minor incidents like this one happen in which a shoplifting attempt is thwarted, but this could have all been avoided if they had handled the situation internally. Ask if a family member can be called to pick her up and speak to them. Ban her from the store. Take a photo of her and post it in employee areas so staff know to be aware.
Police departments need better training in interacting with those with dementia and with mental health challenges in general. This arrest of Garner was a waste of law enforcement time and resources, and demonstrates the urgent need for engaged community policing.
And of course we need better resources for those with dementia. We don’t know Garner’s personal situation, if she was still attempting to live alone without regular supervision or if she wandered away. Both are common scenarios, and leave family members fearful for their loved one’s safety. With many adult day programs shut down due to COVID-19, there is likely an increase of those with dementia who feel bored and restless. While there are privacy concerns, offering identification that one has dementia could be helpful. The officer looked through Garner’s wallet about midway through the arrest. If there had been a card that said, “I have dementia. Please call this number for assistance,” the officers may have responded differently.
I thought about a similar incident with my father. I talk about the “burrito incident” in my book, The Reluctant Caregiver, and how it became a turning point in our family. He was at the stage of Alzheimer’s where his symptoms were becoming more apparent, but he still wanted to be independent. My mother sent him on an errand to pick up some items at a nearby convenience store, where they were regular customers. He picked up a couple of burritos and tried to walk out without paying. The clerk stopped him and my father got verbally agitated. Fortunately my mother was called instead of the cops and she hurried down to handle things. I believe my father would have ended up like Garner if the police had been called. Perhaps even worse.
None of this is easy. Police officers are not mental health experts, nor are store clerks. The pandemic has disrupted funding and access to community services. But it is clear in this particular case that no justice was served. I hope this case can demonstrate how broken our community services are for those with dementia and other mental health challenges and inspire solutions that are based in common sense and compassion.