It seems rare that justice is done in cases like these so I wanted to give an update on a case that I’ve written about previously on The Memories Project.
A police officer in Colorado who used excessive physical force against a 73-year-old woman with dementia who had been accused of shoplifting has been sentenced to 5 years in prison.
The case went viral after the video of the rough arrest was released to the public and shared on social media. Karen Garner was accused by Walmart staff of trying to walk out of the store with $14 of merchandise in June 2020. Staff were able to retrieve the merchandise in question, but Garner walked away from the store before police arrived. Officer Austin Hopp attempted to stop Garner, who was confused and not cooperative due to her dementia. Hopp proceeded to slam Garner to the ground during the arrest, dislocating her shoulder. She was also hogtied and suffered a fractured arm and sprained wrist.
Garner’s ordeal didn’t end there. When she complained about pain at the police station, she was mocked and ignored. Hopp and two other police officers laughed about the incident, boasting, “We crushed it.”
You can watch the arrest below. Viewer discretion advised.
A female officer involved in the arrest has also been charged in the case and has a court hearing in June.
UPDATE: The officers involved in the arrest of Karen Garner have been charged and arrested.
A second video in this case has been released, 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.
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.