The Violent Arrest Of A Woman With Dementia Highlights The Lack Of Police Training | WAMC

The Violent Arrest Of A Woman With Dementia Highlights The Lack Of Police Training

14 hours ago
Originally published on June 15, 2021 4:23 pm

It's been nearly a year since police officers in Loveland, Colo., injured an older woman with dementia and then laughed at the footage of her arrest. The fallout continues.

Two of those officers resigned and are now facing criminal charges, including assault and excessive use of force. They and the city are being sued in federal court. The rest of the police force — there are 118 sworn officers — is undergoing additional de-escalation training.

The case has drawn national attention to a problem that experts say is widespread across law enforcement agencies: Police often lack the skills to interact with people suspected of crimes who are in mental distress or have physical disabilities.

In June, a Walmart employee called police and said a woman, later identified as 73-year-old Karen Garner, tried to leave without paying for $14 worth of items. Officer Austin Hopp arrived first. His body camera video showed him pulling up as she walked down a road and then wrestling her to the ground after she failed to respond to his questions.

Afterward, Garner's attorneys say, she sat in jail for several hours with a dislocated and fractured shoulder as Hopp and two other officers laughed while watching the body camera video of her arrest.

According to a federal complaint, Garner has dementia and also suffers from sensory aphasia, which impairs her ability to understand. Her violent arrest has other older people in the area worried about potential encounters with police, Loveland resident June Dreith told the police chief during a public meeting last month.

"They are now seriously afraid of the police department," Dreith said.

Hopp faces felony charges of assault and attempting to influence a public servant — a charge related to allegations of omissions when reporting the arrest — as well as official misconduct, a misdemeanor. Another officer, Daria Jalali, also resigned and is charged with three misdemeanors: failure to report excessive force, failure to intervene and official misconduct.

Neither Hopp nor Jalali has entered a plea in court. A third officer, who watched the video with them, resigned but has not been charged.

No national standards means training varies widely

An independent assessment of the Loveland Police Department by a third-party consultant is underway. The city and involved officers face a federal lawsuit, filed by Garner in April, alleging excessive use of force and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Loveland Police Chief Robert Ticer declined to be interviewed, but through his public information officer, he characterized the Garner arrest as a problem with an individual officer, not with the department's operations.

Loveland Police Chief Robert Ticer has characterized Garner's arrest as an issue with an individual officer, not with the department's operations. The city's police are undergoing Alzheimer's awareness training.
Leigh Paterson / KUNC

"Our training currently, in the past and present, is always to make sure our officers are up to speed on as much training as they can on how to interact with people in crisis who may have mental health issues," Ticer said during the public meeting in May at department headquarters.

The Loveland Police Department, like many others, requires officers to be trained to respond to people with mental illness and developmental disabilities. But no national standards exist. The amount of training law enforcement officers receive on interacting with disabled people varies widely.

"On the whole, we're doing terrible," said Jim Burch, president of the National Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on police research and training. "We have to do much, much better at being able to recognize these types of issues and being more sensitive to them."

While comprehensive data on the frequency of negative interactions between police and people with mental disabilities is lacking, interactions with the criminal justice system are common. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated about 3 in 10 state and federal prisoners and 4 in 10 local jail inmates have at least one disability.

"There's a very large number of people that police are coming into contact with that have an intellectual disability or mental health challenge," Burch said. "Do we have a systemic problem? We think that we do."

Noncompliance may be due to a disability

Colorado requires a minimum of two hours of training on interacting with special populations, including people with disabilities, although legislation aims to improve on that by creating a commission to recommend new statewide standards.

Loveland's officers are certified in crisis intervention training. The department also has a co-responder program, which pairs law enforcement officers with mental health clinicians, although this team was not called during Garner's arrest. Since that arrest, questions remain about the department's readiness to interact with people who have challenges.

"We could always use more and more training. We could train every single week for eight hours a day, but we could do that all the time and never go out on calls," said Sgt. Brandon Johnson, who oversees training. "It's just balancing our available workforce and our time and our service to the community and our staffing levels."

Loveland police officers are now undergoing Alzheimer's awareness training, and five staff members will be trained as de-escalation instructors, department officials said.

Training on how to interact with people who have disabilities varies. But the idea is to identify such individuals early in an encounter instead of relying on use of force.

"It's scary, because you don't know why they're not following your commands," said Ali Thompson, a former deputy with the Boulder County Sheriff's Office who now serves on the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council. "So, your adrenaline starts pumping and you think ... 'They're not listening to my commands because they have a warrant or because they have a gun on them,' or you come up with all of these scenarios to explain it."

Garner's rough arrest is "not an isolated incident by any means," Thompson said. She said she would not have thought to attribute noncompliance to conditions such as autism or dementia when she was a young patrol officer.

"We need to start bringing those possibilities into those 'what if' scenarios," Thompson said.

Lack of understanding goes beyond police departments

In addition to teaching how to identify people with cognitive disabilities, organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police help prepare officers for such situations by suggesting they speak in short phrases, refrain from touching and turn off sirens and flashing lights.

Research on which disability-specific efforts actually reduce bad outcomes is scant, but experts point to other types of curricula as relevant, too, including crisis intervention training, instruction on de-escalating tensions and sessions on mental illness.

"Just training in and of itself is not going to create that long-term change that we are hoping for," said Lee Ann Davis, director of criminal justice initiatives at The ARC, a national disability advocacy organization.

That means going beyond officer training to address the many areas in which people with disabilities are not being identified and supported, she said. One of The ARC's programs, Pathways to Justice, brings in not only law enforcement officials but also attorneys and victim service providers for instruction.

"So our goal is to help communities understand that this is a communitywide issue, that there's not one specific spoke within the criminal justice system or in our communities that can address it adequately alone," Davis said.

Johnson, the Loveland sergeant in charge of training, said officers have been engaged for years in community outreach.

Despite what happened in the Garner arrest, Johnson believes the department is adequately prepared to interact with people who are disabled or may be in distress. At the same time, he acknowledges limitations.

"We have to be the first responder. We have to have a good foundational understanding of all of it," he said. "But we're also not ... we're also not experts."

Leigh Paterson of KUNC reported this story in collaboration with KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This was one of the viral videos of police activity in 2020. Almost a year ago, a 73-year-old woman with dementia was violently arrested by police in Loveland, Colo. The officers have since resigned and are facing criminal charges. The woman's lawyer says officers dislocated and fractured her shoulder. As police departments face pressure to examine the use of force, this arrest has highlighted a problem. Police often lack the skills to interact with disabled people. From KUNC in northern Colorado, Leigh Paterson reports.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: At a public meeting last month, Loveland resident June Dryth told the police chief why she thinks he should resign.

JUNE DRYTH: I've been talking to a lot of elderly people in my neighborhood, especially women, that are now seriously - and I'm not joking - they are seriously afraid of the police department.

PATERSON: Body camera footage released in April shows the arrest of the tiny 73-year-old woman named Karen Garner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVIED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Ma'am, police. Stop.

PATERSON: She had just tried to leave a Walmart store without paying for $14 worth of items. Afterwards, a police officer wrestled her into handcuffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: No. No, no - on the ground. Stay on the ground.

KAREN GARNER: I'm going home.

PATERSON: I'm going home, she said several times before he forced her into his car. Garner has since filed a federal lawsuit alleging police used excessive force and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when they injured her and then left her in jail for hours.

JIM BURCH: We have to do much, much better at being able to recognize these types of issues and being more sensitive to them.

PATERSON: Jim Burch heads up the National Police Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on research and training. Right now, Colorado requires a minimum of two hours of curriculum on how to interact with people who have disabilities. Many say this is inadequate. National standards don't exist, so training requirements vary wildly department to department.

BURCH: Each one of them has their own policies, their own procedures. So on the whole, we're doing terrible.

PATERSON: There's little data on this topic, but disabled people do interact with the criminal justice system frequently. In 2016, nearly 40% of state and federal prison inmates reported having a disability. Ali Thompson gets these challenges. She's the disability advocate, but used to be a deputy sheriff in northern Colorado.

ALI THOMPSON: It's scary because you don't know why they're not following your commands. So your adrenaline starts pumping. You think they're not listening to my commands because they have a warrant or because they have a gun on them or - you come up with all of these scenarios to explain it.

PATERSON: Early on in her career, when Thompson was a patrol officer, she says she herself wouldn't have thought that conditions like autism or dementia could be factoring in.

THOMPSON: We need to start bringing those possibilities into those what-if scenarios.

PATERSON: After the Garner incident, the Colorado chapter of the Alzheimer's Association contacted Loveland PD to offer up their Approaching Alzheimer's training. It's now required for officers, advising them to speak calmly, turn off sirens and avoid touching. Sergeant Brandon Johnson, who oversees training, says it's never really enough.

BRANDON JOHNSON: You know, we could always use more training. I mean, I - it's balancing our available workforce, our time and our service to the community and our staffing levels.

PATERSON: In Loveland, five staff members are also being trained to become de-escalation instructors. And statewide, there's a push to do more. Lawmakers have advanced a bill this session to improve first responder training standards for disabled people.

For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAODAIL'S "GAEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.