As we watch the video, we know that Karen Garner is 73 years old, maybe 80 lbs. and suffers from dementia. That can, and should, inform what we see. How then is it possible that Loveland, Colorado, police officer Austin Hopp engaged her so forcefully, so needlessly, so wrongly?
The background is laid out in a suit for excessive force.
According to the lawsuit, Walmart employees asked Garner to return to the store when they saw her leave without paying and took the items back – a soda, a candy bar, a T-shirt, and wipe refills – denying her request to pay for the items.
Someone from Walmart then called police to report Garner and the direction she walking but said the store had not suffered a loss, the lawsuit said. The charges against Garner were dismissed after prosecutors wrote in a motion that she “appears to be incapable of understanding her surroundings or her actions.”
There are questions in there, such as why Garner was at Walmart by herself given her condition. Why Walmart employees didn’t take her money and leave it at that. Why, after preventing this attempted theft, they still called the police. Why no one at Walmart recognized that Karen Garner was suffering from dementia. We can guess at the answers, but we can’t know. Nonetheless, assuming the allegations of the complaint to be true, this was what preceded Officer Hopp’s engaging with Garner.
What was Hopp there to do? It doesn’t seem as if he meant to arrest her for her attempted shoplifting, but rather give her the cop talk so it wouldn’t happen again. He obviously saw that she was a mere 80 lbs., surely not physically imposing, and someone who could be easily injured by his use of force. Garner’s age isn’t quite so easily determined. She was no youngster, obviously, but she was a spry 73, the sort of person who could have been a decade younger.
But what about the dementia? Was she dumb, playing dumb or something else? We know it was something else, but then we have the advantage of knowing what that something else is. When Hopp asks “do you need to be arrested right now,” Garner just turns and walks away. Contempt of cop.
There are many aspects of this engagement that are curious. Hopp doesn’t use the usual profane language when a cop wants to shock a person into compliance. His tone is moderate. His words are inoffensive. Later in the video, when another person challenges Hopp’s actions, he engages in a discussion with this guy about what happened, to some extent explaining his actions. He doesn’t need to do this, and few cops would explain themselves to unrelated third parties. It’s more likely that the third party would be threatened with arrest for obstructing. That didn’t happen.
In many ways, Officer Hopp seems to be a fairly decent cop, but for the two really critical things that occurred, his use of needless force against Garner, who neither used nor threatened the use of any force against Hopp. And why was he arresting her at all? Presumably, he knew that she had not taken anything from Walmart without paying. Was he aware that she offered to pay? While the reality as shown in the body cam video was that there was no intention to arrest until she turned and walked away, an affront to his authority, was that all he had?
Then comes the question that seems unfathomable knowing what we know as we watch this interaction head south. How did Officer Austin Hopp not realize that Karen Garner had issues, was unable to understand him, was unable to respond in a way that would be satisfactory to him, was unable to have an engagement with Hopp that he, as the person putatively not suffering from dementia, would recognize as one where she would deserve some empathy and understanding instead of being thrown to the ground and cuffed, or tossed on the car with her arm twisted up hard or the blood. Blood.
Bear in mind, Hopp didn’t see it. Neither did the female officer who arrived to assist him. Not the supervisor who arrived. Not the people at Walmart either. The fellow who stopped to challenge the arrest didn’t know it either, although he at least saw a cop toss a small, old woman who didn’t appear to do anything to deserve to be the victim of needless force.
According to the statement from [Garner’s lawyers] the Life & Liberty Law Office, When she indicated she did not understand him, and turned to continue walking home, he grabbed her and violently assaulted her, twisting her arms behind her back, throwing her to the ground and handcuffing her. Just eight seconds passed between Officer Hopp reaching Ms. Garner and Officer Hopp throwing her tiny body to the ground and putting her in handcuffs. Defendant Officer Jalali then arrived and assisted Officer Hopp in violently and needlessly dislocating Ms. Garner’s shoulder, fracturing her humerus, and spraining her wrist. Then they threw her onto the ground again and hog-tied her. Throughout this attack, the only thing the terrified, disabled and injured Ms. Garner was able to utter was “I’m going home!”. She cried out these words over 38 times.
How it’s possible that at no point, even after the needlessly forceful arrest, no one recognized that Garner was suffering from some disability and that they had made a horrible mistake in misconstruing her “inappropriate” reactions as resisting Hopp’s authority rather than a woman suffering from dementia. We’ve seen this phenomenon repeat itself with children on the autism spectrum, deaf people, people suffering from diabetes and seizures. Some don’t survive the encounter.
Lest the police here be forgiven their lack of training, insensitivity and outright ignorance, the post-arrest conduct was independently reprehensible and inexcusable,
The attorneys go on to claim that Garner was ignored despite repeated complaints of pain and that medical care was not sought for her in the several hours she remained with police, instead she was handcuffed to a cell at the station for more than 2 hours. She was then transferred to the Larimer County Jail where she remained for another 3 hours without medical treatment.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect a cop to recognize dementia in a person for whom there was no reason for force or arrest in the first place, but there is no excuse, once they knew her age and had overwhelming opportunity to know her challenges, not to correct their grievous error. But recognition or not, the refusal to provide medical care to any one injured is inexcusable.