A few years ago, Jodi Gragg‘s mother-in-law decided that she only needed to tell cashiers a code in order to pay for merchandise.
The older woman, who has dementia, would walk up to the counter, recite a number and believe she had legally paid for the items, Gragg said. At least once, Gragg intervened before her mother-in-law tried to walk away without paying.
When video of a Loveland police officer violently arresting a 73-year-old woman with dementia made international news last month, it was difficult for Gragg to watch. The woman, Karen Garner, was walking home after Walmart employees stopped her from leaving the store with $13 of merchandise when the officer, with little conversation, took the woman to the ground and shoved her against his police car, fracturing her arm and dislocating her shoulder.
Gragg could envision her mother-in-law in a similar situation, she said.
“It’s something we’ve talked about so many times,” Gragg said. “I could totally see her walking out of a store with something she never paid for, or sticking things in her clothing, doing things she wouldn’t do if it wasn’t for the dementia. Then you see what happened in Loveland, and it’s scary.”
The video of the Loveland police officers violently arresting Garner — and the federal civil rights lawsuit against the department — prompted several police departments in the state to reach out to the Colorado chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to request training on how to work with people with dementia.
The association already provided training to several large departments, like Denver police and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, but since the Loveland arrest representatives from police departments in Erie, Steamboat Springs and Firestone have reached out to request the training, association spokesman Jim Herlihy said. Loveland police, too, will receive the training.
“I think it would’ve been neglectful for me to see what was going on and not take some level of action,” Steamboat Springs police Chief Cory Christensen said.
About 76,000 people in Colorado have Alzheimer’s disease, which is a type of dementia, Herlihy said. The number of people in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to grow from approximately 6.2 million in 2021 to 7.2 million by 2025.
“It’s more and more likely that our first responders are going to be encountering people who are experiencing dementia,” Herlihy said.
The Alzheimer’s Association’s training instructs officers to do the opposite of what Loveland police Officer Austin Hopp did when arresting Garner. The Loveland Police Department on Friday announced Hopp, as well as two other officers involved in Garner’s arrest, had resigned.
The module on responding to shoplifting calls where the suspect might have dementia focuses on creating a calm atmosphere and spending enough time with a person to look for signs. If the suspect shows symptoms of dementia, like an inability to answer basic questions or forgetfulness, the training instructs the officer to try to contact the person’s family. It also instructs officer to not use restraints, like handcuffs and hobbles, because they may compound confusion and disorientation.
“Confronting the person is not recommended,” training materials state. “Instead, ease the person out of the situation, and try to resolve the matter with the store manager and caregiver.”
Responding to a call involving a person with dementia requires a different set of skills and specialized training, said Eric Bianchi, a former police officer who volunteers with the Alzheimer’s Association and provides training to Colorado law enforcement.
“We’re taught to take control of a situation and that can be a serious problem if the person you’re encountering does have dementia because they probably won’t respond in the way that you want them to,” he said.
Bianchi frequently encountered people with dementia during his 32 years working as an officer in Irvine, California, but rarely knew how to handle the situation because he didn’t have training. Over the last few decades, training on dementia has become more common because officers are encountering more people with the symptoms and because city leaders are recognizing the liability untrained officers can cause.
“I haven’t talked to a police officer who hasn’t encountered someone with dementia,” Bianchi said. “I’ve also met a lot of police officers who say my father, my grandfather, or someone had dementia.”
A month ago a Steamboat Springs sergeant received a call similar to what happened in Loveland, but handled it completely differently, Christensen said.
An older woman had been caught trying to take a few items from a store and the store employees called police. When the sergeant arrived, he realized that something was different about the situation. He contacted the woman’s family and was able to take her home. He also worked with the store to avoid a criminal case, Christensen said.
“I want my officers to know that it’s OK to not write that woman a ticket for shoplifting,” he said. “Because the community isn’t demanding a shoplifting ticket. They’re demanding public safety.”
Gragg’s mother-in-law has had several other interactions with police due to her dementia. The woman frequently called police to report a break-in at her house that didn’t exist. Gragg once woke up to police officers shining flashlights in her bedroom window in the middle of the night because her mother-in-law had called 911 to report an intruder in the home.
“I’m worried about her walking into someone else’s home, or walking into the wrong home, where someone might pull a weapon on her,” Gragg said. “And obviously the police could get involved in something like that.”
Gragg, a former 911 dispatcher in Arapahoe County, said she understands police don’t always know a person’s diagnosis. But she hopes further training will help more officers identify the signs of dementia and prevent future injuries.
“Sometimes they don’t have any time to get this information,” she said. “This lady in Loveland, I think they had some time to handle this better.”
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