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Prosecutors open criminal probe into police who allegedly broke the arm of a 73-year-old woman with dementia

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/20/2021 Tim Elfrink
Police body-cam video shows aggressive arrest of 73-year-old woman with dementia
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Karen Garner was plucking purple wildflowers and strolling back to her home in Loveland, Colo., last year when the police spotted her.

A few minutes earlier, the 73-year-old with dementia had walked out of a Walmart without paying for some items. Now, as the officer tried to arrest her, she appeared confused and frightened.

“I’m going home,” she pleaded, still clutching the flowers as he wrestled her into handcuffs.

By the time two officers finally forced the 80-pound woman into a cruiser, her family says, her arm was broken, her shoulder was dislocated, and her body was covered in bruises.

Following days of outcry after the release of body-camera footage, the city announced Monday that it is opening an independent probe into Garner’s treatment. Separately, Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin said his office’s critical response team will investigate whether there was “any potential criminal behavior” by the Loveland officers.

The Loveland Police Department has also suspended Officer Austin Hopp, who initially handcuffed Garner; two others who were on the scene, Officer Daria Jalali and Sgt. Phil Metzler, have been placed on administrative duty while the inquiry is carried out.

Garner’s family, which filed a federal lawsuit against the city last week, praised the move by McLaughlin’s office. “This is a small, but long overdue, step in the right direction,” her family said in a statement shared with The Washington Post.

Police have faced increased scrutiny of their treatment of people facing mental crises, particularly after high-profile cases like that of Daniel T. Prude, who died after Rochester police placed a hood over his head last year amid a mental health emergency. Some cities have begun sending non-police specialists to similar cases, while other departments have mandated training for dealing with mental health crises.

Police encounter many people with mental-health crises. Could psychiatrists help?

In Garner’s case, her family argued in its federal lawsuit, a mental health crises team would have been a more appropriate response than a violent arrest. Her family said she also has sensory aphasia, a condition that leaves her unable to understand speech or to communicate easily.

On June 26, Garner had gone to a Walmart near her home in Loveland, a town about 50 miles north of Denver, and then walked out with soda, candy, a T-shirt and cleaning supplies worth $13.88 without paying, according to her family’s lawsuit.

Employees intercepted her outside and took the items back, refusing to take her credit card to pay for them. In a statement, Walmart said it contacted the police because she allegedly pulled off an employee’s mask.

“We stopped Ms. Garner after noticing her attempt to take merchandise from the store without paying for it. When we addressed this issue directly with her the situation escalated when she forcibly removed an associate’s facemask and fled the store,” Walmart said in a statement. “The police were called only after Ms. Garner became physical with an associate.”

Confused by the ordeal, her family said, Garner left and started walking home.

When Walmart employees called police, her family said, they told dispatchers that Garner was elderly.

But when Hopp spotted her walking through a field near the road moments later, he aggressively moved to arrest her, body-camera footage showed.

“I don’t think you want to play it this way,” he said as she walked away from him. Garner held her hands in the air, clutching the flowers she’d collected, and then continued walking. “Do you need to be arrested right now?” he asked.

Within seconds, Hopp grabbed her arms and began wrenching them backward to handcuff her. For several minutes, as Garner repeatedly cried that she was “going home,” he struggled with her on the ground, fighting to keep her hands behind her.

Eventually Jalali arrived to help Hopp hold Garner against a cruiser as they continued fighting to pull her arms behind her.

After Garner fell to the ground, a concerned bystander stopped to film the scene. “Do you have to use that much aggression?” the man can be heard asking in the body-camera video.

“Get out of here. This is not your business,” an officer replied.

Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Garner.

In the lawsuit, filed last Thursday in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, Garner’s family argues that her dementia and aphasia left her unable to understand the police officers demands when they attempted to stop her and ordered her to stop struggling.

The family’s attorney, Sarah Schielke, criticized how police approached the incident from the start.

Hopp “did not call dispatch or request a mental health unit. He did not waste even one second on calm conversation or explanation,” she writes in the federal complaint. “Instead, he immediately leapt out and physically grabbed Ms. Garner’s left arm, and violently twisted it behind her back. Then he threw her 80-pound body to the ground and climbed on top of her.”

After the lawsuit was filed last week, Loveland Police suspended Hopp and said it had not received a complaint about the incident before the lawsuit. As the body-camera footage circulated widely over the weekend, local officials were flooded with emails and phone calls about the case, the city said in a statement on Monday.

The city said that its third-party investigation, which probably will be carried out by Loveland’s insurance carrier, will determine whether the officers broke policies in the arrest, the Loveland Reporter-Herald reported.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, will carry out a separate criminal probe. That investigation “will not only ensure there is accountability for any potential criminal behavior but will also give our community the information and framework with which to evaluate our performance and have faith in the results of our investigations,” McLaughlin’s office said in a statement.

Loveland’s police chief, Robert Ticer, will address the city council on Tuesday as local lawmakers discuss the case.

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